‘Literature in Context’ seeks to provide a digital alternative to print anthologies. A new NEH grant will help.

By Molly Minturn | March 31, 2023

Literature in Context logo

Six years ago, University of Virginia English professor John O’Brien and his colleague Tonya Howe, a professor of literature at Marymount University, were both wrestling with a problem in their classrooms. Students, up against rising textbook costs, were coming to class with free, but unvetted versions of assigned reading. “These digital versions of literary texts were poorly edited and annotated — if they were edited at all,” Howe said. 

The two professors joined forces with the University of Virginia Library to create “Literature in Context: An Open Anthology of Literature,” a rigorously edited, curated anthology of digital texts that also serves as an open educational resource — students and teachers can access it anywhere for free. Launched in 2017, the project currently offers a vast selection of texts from the 18th century, the period in which both professors specialize. Earlier this year, the National Endowment for the Humanities awarded “Literature in Context” a grant totaling $303,104 to expand the project.  

“Our goal is to really scale up Literature in Context to create a full anthology’s worth of texts, from medieval to right up to the copyright line [1927 in the United States],” said Chris Ruotolo, Director of Research in the Arts and Humanities at UVA Library and co-principal investigator of the NEH grant (along with Howe and O’Brien). “Soon, Literature in Context will be usable in lieu of a print anthology that you would typically use for a literature class,” Ruotolo said. 

We spoke to Ruotolo, Howe, and O’Brien to learn a bit more about the history and future of Literature in Context.

Q. Can you talk about some of the challenges students are facing when it comes to textbook costs? 

Howe: Print anthologies are expensive and also wasteful: most classes use a fraction of these enormous books. Publishers make those anthologies obsolete every few years by coming out with new editions.  

O’Brien: And given the cost of textbooks in general, it is not surprising that students often turn to the web and use whatever text comes up first in a search. But they have no way of knowing how to choose a good text from a bad one.

Ruotolo: Students have become very resourceful about finding free versions of these texts. But the versions that they’re getting are not vetted. They’re from different editions, they have errors, they don’t have the same pagination. Teaching to a class where every student has a different version of the text that they’re scrolling through is challenging. Ideally, you want to be teaching with a version of a text that’s authoritative, but at the very least, you want to be teaching with the same version.  

Take Shakespeare: there are major, major differences between the earliest editions and later editions. We need to all be working, literally, from the same page, in order to be able to talk about the text in a meaningful way.  

Q. Tell me about the early days of Literature in Context and how the project is growing. 

O’Brien: The digital texts that students were discovering on their own were bad, but we knew that it was possible to make excellent digital texts, with fuller annotations than any print edition can have, along with images, links to other texts, the ability for students to highlight and interact with the text, and more.  

Howe: We began working with students and colleagues to create a digital “anthology” of reliable literary texts that teachers and students can turn to with confidence. We wanted to make it an open educational resource, freely available for classroom use.  

Ruotolo: In 2017, John, Tonya, and I received a grant from the NEH to develop a proof of concept, which became Literature in Context. [In full, the project has received three grants — two from the NEH and one from the Virtual Library of Virginia — totaling around $400,000.] Other UVA Library staff have made important contributions to the project. Kristin Jensen was named in the new grant as Project Manager. David Hennigan has supported the project since it first launched, assisting with grant administration and budgeting. Dave Goldstein in Library IT has established and maintained the web hosting environment.

As we were developing Literature in Context, John and Tonya were both using it to teach, so most of the texts in the project are from the 18th century. For many of today’s college students, there are a lot of unfamiliar names, references, and allusions to other literary works in these texts. So, the students were able to dive in, identify the things that are unfamiliar to them that are likely to be unfamiliar to their peers as well.  

Q. So, students participate in the making of Literature in Context? 

Ruotolo: Yes! Students provide annotations for the text and sometimes ancillary materials like images, and even video clips to help explain some of the details of texts that might be unfamiliar. They also do some of the back-end work of encoding those texts and putting them online. The idea is that every cohort of students who use these texts are creating some research that grows the project that is then used by future cohorts of students. 

We also wanted to develop a platform that’s expandable so that down the road, other instructors can add the texts that they use for their classes and continue to grow this body of materials that otherwise we’d be paying publishers for.  

O’Brien: We want students, together with faculty, to continue to create annotated editions for Literature in Context as a way into information literacy and the digital humanities. 

Q. What are some of your favorite elements of the project? Favorite titles? Favorite assignments? 

Ruotolo: The Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein entry is one of my all-time favorites, and it’s also one of the texts that shows off the best version of Literature in Context that’s up now. It has a lot of really rich annotations, and it can show you what the project is all about. 

Howe: In developing the project, we thought a lot about what would benefit faculty in the classroom. Instructors using Literature in Context can customize their own anthologies, selecting the texts they want for coursepacks that can, if they wish, be printed on demand.  

Ruotolo: Yes, instructors can customize it. They can include texts that are perhaps outside the canon of texts that are typically included in these anthologies — they can include more women authors, more authors of color, more works that were underrepresented or overlooked by previous anthology editors. Literature in Context is infinitely expandable; there’s no limit on page count. So the idea is to have enough text in the hopper that an instructor can go through and pick which texts they want to use in a coursepack.  

Q. Can you talk about the ways the project intersects with the open educational resource and digital humanities movements? 

Ruotolo: The earliest digital humanities work at UVA Library dates back to the 1990s. Much of this work involved taking digitized texts, indexing them, and making it possible to search across the body of text and look for different words and phrases and compare. Literature in Context really evolves out of that tradition. 

I think the inflated cost of print anthologies has been a known issue for a long time. But there is a fair amount of resistance among literature folks to reading on screens, which I think impeded the momentum to move forward with open educational resources in a lot of disciplines. 

The COVID pandemic shifted the thinking on that; people were really scrambling to find online texts they could use, and I think it opened up both faculty and student perspectives on how useful digital texts could be. I feel like the time has never been better to really try to get some wider adoption of open education resources for literature classes. 

The new NEH grant will allow us to greatly expand the project. And the other piece of the grant is to try to make the texts more easily accessible. This means fine-tuning the accessibility and mobile friendliness, and making texts easily embeddable in course management systems like Canvas, so that it’s that much easier for students to engage with the content. We are really positioning Literature in Context as not just supplementary to what people are teaching, but as a potential replacement for the core course materials.