I first encountered the Lyon diaries by accident. On a volunteer trip to document Jamaican Jewish tombstones, I met Diane Lyon Wead, the great, great, great granddaughter of A.S. Lyon. When she learned of my interest in nineteenth-century literature and London's East End, Diane offered to let me borrow a photocopy of A. S. Lyon's diary. After a preliminary reading I was struck by the power of the writing and the unusual depictions of the East End. I immediately began planning a new literature course designed to inspire students to think about why nineteenth-century handwritten diaries matter to us today. Yet, I also wanted students to explore the relationship between old media and new media. The class I imagined would create opportunities for using digital media to help us understand the voice and perspective of a young man whose diaries had miraculously survived, albeit with pages crumbling into dust.
After many months of planning, and the support of a Coleman-Guitteau Teaching Professorship Award from the Oregon Humanities Center, I began teaching my new course. The course design focused on the creation of a digital archive that would enable my students to study historic media forms; to learn about nineteenth-century diary writing; to consider the construction of subjectivity in the private records of someone their own age writing in 1826; and to theorize the archive as both a narrative construction and a vehicle for challenging assumptions of more sensational depictions of London's East End. Whereas most depictions of the East End in this period focus on dirt and poverty, Lyon's diary offers a window into his family and social life, a world of readers, theatre-goers, struggling entrepreneurs, and educational opportunities. Using the publishing platform Omeka.org (follow this link to learn more about Omeka) my students would build an archive that would help us to understand Lyon's diary and the cultural contexts that emerge through its pages.
The course moved in scaffolded steps that introduced to students depictions of nineteenth-century London; the diary as a literary form; data curation; digital visualization; archival theory; and A. S. Lyon’s 1826-39 diary. My students simultaneously engaged in discussions about what kind of content to create or contribute to The Lyon Archive. Our goal ultimately was to find ways to engage with A.S. Lyon’s diary--that is, to make it relevant and accessible to contemporary readers. But we were also faced with a weighty challenge: how could we use digital tools to preserve and open up the diary for future readers? How might we understand archive building in the present, framed by an unknowable past and an unknown future? What could the diary and our archive say to that future? And what might our imagined future help us to understand about the diary's silences?
Individual students contributed over 90 "items" (also known as "digital objects") to The Lyon Archive (follow this link to access the Archive's items). Several student-created "exhibit essays" (sometimes called "multi-media essays") have become permanent features of The Lyon Archive (follow this link to access student exhibit essays). Our final course project was a collaboratively-created digital timeline. Following class debates about the most powerfully written passages in the diary, my students set out to interpret and visualize A.S. Lyon’s depictions of his emotional and intellectual growth. The decision to build a timeline grew out of our observations about the diary's form. After all, a diary isn't just a record of events; it's a text that unfolds in chronological increments over time. The diary's content appears in fragments, each marked by a specific date but contextualized by the passing of days, months, and years. We used a digital tool called, Timeline JS (follow this link to learn more), to help us visualize and understand the relationships among individual diary entries. By the end of the term, the class designed an exhibit, “A.S. Lyon: Travels Across Time” which can be accessed onThe Lyon Archive under the Contents page or by following this link.
When his business prospects failed, A.S. Lyon traveled to Jamaica hoping to create a new life for himself. In the end, Lyon became a prominent member of Kingston’s Jewish community--a happy conclusion that may have been difficult for Lyon to imagine during his early years as a struggling diarist living in London's East End. The timeline exhibit charts moments that students identified as significant in Lyon’s path to success. As a group we agreed that one of the most interesting features of Lyon’s diary was its survival. For reasons we may never know, not only did Lyon save his writing, but it continued to be saved by each generation of family members. Thus, our initial thinking about how to make the diary accessible to the public led to a consideration of the miracle of its existence and the mystery of its provenance.
To date The Lyon Archive has been used in one course, taught in Fall 2016. Currently I'm expanding the content and affordances of the digital archive to help recover and understand the Lyon family's literary legacy. Each time I offer a version of the course students will study a different Lyon diary. Accordingly, each new class will not only find new ways of studying diaries, but will respond to students from previous versions of the course. With each new group of students ths site will develop to provide additional opportunities to build and learn about published and daily writing, digital editions, and digital archives.