The Lyon Archive

Pedagogy & The Digital Archive

Why Build an Archive to Teach A.S. Lyon's Diaries?

My first reading of A.S. Lyon's diaries convinced me they would be a great resource for a course I was offering on media and literature. I began developing the course by looking for ways to inspire students to think about why nineteenth-century handwritten diaries matter to us today. I also wanted students to explore the relationship between old media and new media, or between handwritten nineteenth-century diaries and modern writing platforms, such as's exhibit builder. The class I designed created opportunities for students to use digital media to help us understand the voice and perspective of a young man whose diaries had miraculously survived. 

After many months of planning, and the support of a Coleman-Guitteau Teaching Professorship Award from the Oregon Humanities Center, showtime arrived. I began teaching my new course by focusing 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. While 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, and struggling entrepreneurs. Using the publishing platform (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 it recounts on its pages.  

My students raised key questions 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).

When his business prospects failed, A.S. Lyon traveled to Jamaica hoping to create a new life for himself. Lyon ultimately 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 his family. 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. 

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. 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 this site will provide additional opportunities to build and learn about published and daily writing, digital editions, and digital archives.