When an important online resource about the Great Detective Sherlock Holmes was looking for a new home or faced the possibility of being taken down, Liza Potts, Associate Professor of Digital Humanities, jumped at the opportunity such a project would provide for her students.
Sherlockian.net, one of the leading sites for information on Sherlock Holmes, author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Sherlockian community, is now managed and maintained by Potts and a team of students within the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University.
Potts, whose father first introduced her to the Sherlock Holmes stories when she was 8 years old and who went on to read all of them, was concerned when Sherlockian.net site creator and curator Chris Redmond announced on Twitter he was retiring and was going to take down the site. Potts also does research on fandom and Sherlock Holmes is one of the oldest fandoms in the world.
“This was a website I used for my own reference and research, and I knew it was really important to the fandom. People tell me they visit it all the time,” Potts said. “It’s also a cultural heritage site, something that’s been going along for 20-plus years in a place that’s well respected, necessary, and useful to this community. I wanted to see how we can be part of that and support that.”
Potts reached out to Redmond, at first on Twitter and then via Skype, indicating her interest in taking over the site.
This could be the type of project that could make a career for a student to have worked on a website this large and to be responsible for helping with the vision in creating something from the ground up.Dr. Liza Potts
“I thought it was a great project to have students apply what they are learning in the classroom, allowing them to gain experience while giving them something for their portfolio,” said Potts, who teaches classes on content strategy and web writing in the Department of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures. “This could be the type of project that could make a career for a student to have worked on a website this large and to be responsible for helping with the vision in creating something from the ground up.”
For Ashita Nichanametla, senior Professional Writing major, working on Sherlockian.net has expanded her career options.
“This is giving me a chance to edit in a digital space and has opened a few more doors for me,” Nichanametla said. “Up until now, I had been planning to go into traditional book publishing, but I feel this is just as important. Digital spaces are how people engage and communicate nowadays. And I think editing is really important no matter what the medium, whether it is a book or a website.”
Besides Potts, several other people showed interest in managing the site, but in the end, Redmond choose to turn it over to Potts and Michigan State University.
“He liked the idea of having this become a central project in our lab [Writing, Information and Digital Experience (WIDE) Research] and having students involved so that it can become a learning tool,” said Potts, who serves as Director of WIDE. “We also can take care of it and give it the attention it deserves.”
Potts put together a team of graduate and undergraduate students who worked for about a year on redesigning and redeveloping the site, moving it from the flat html files hosted by Redmond himself to a WordPress site hosted through Reclaim Hosting offered by the College of Arts & Letters.
This is giving me a chance to edit in a digital space and has opened a few more doors for me.Ashita Nichanametla, Professional Writing Senior
The team started by reading the whole website and then figured out how to organize the site, the plans for which were laid out in a document that is nearly 40 pages long.
“What we hoped to do was give it some sort of structure while doing right by the original vision for the site,” Potts said. “It was a tremendous amount of work, but it was a joy to be able to do this kind of work.”
Sherlockian.net, which launched in October 2017, consists of more than 250 pages with more than 3,000 curated links providing information on all things related to Sherlock Holmes and author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, including all the original Sherlock Holmes stories and illustrations.
“Getting a chance to work on a bigger project like this with a large audience was really interesting,” said Kalib Watson, a Professional Writing major who graduated this past spring but continues to work on Sherlockian.net as the site’s web developer. “The biggest take away for me is understanding and communicating with your user base, which is a benefit in anything you are building. If you are going to be making something for a specific audience, then you need to communicate with that audience and understand what their needs are.”
Prior to the launch, the team spent a lot of time learning about the Sherlockian community by interviewing and talking to different people and attending various events.
“This has been such a good opportunity for the students to not only learn about how a website really works, but how to work with a cultural heritage site and listen to a community,” Potts said. “This is not just a collection of links. It is a living, vibrant community.”
The Sherlockian community has embraced the revamped site and offered positive feedback.
“They have told us they are so glad that MSU was willing to take on this project and that we are doing such a great service,” Potts said. “One person said that it might just be a project the students are doing at school, but for us as a community, it is so important. They are helping keep the community alive and connected.”
One person said that it might just be a project the students are doing at school, but for us as a community, it is so important. They are helping keep the community alive and connected.Dr. Liza Potts
Now that the site has launched, the team is continually working to update and maintain it, and based on feedback, they are currently working on site enhancements. Three people not connected to MSU but active in the Sherlock Holmes community also work on the site to help maintain it.
“We are experts in building this type of system, but to sustain a community you really need to be involved with it. That’s why we have people in the community to help curate different sections,” Potts said. “We continue to maintain and grow the site, but we want them to help us curate so that we can make sure we are making the right decisions about content and tone and what we are going to include. That takes a team effort.”
For more information, visit Sherlockian.net.