Building The Old Joke Archive

Nicholson, Bob and Hall, Mark (2020). Building The Old Joke Archive. In: Derrin, Daniel and Burrows, Hannah eds. The Palgrave Handbook of Humour, History, and Methodology. London: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 499–514.



Old jokes can be hard to find. Millions of jests were written, performed, and printed by past societies, and plenty of these ephemeral texts and expressions have left traces in the historical record. Unfortunately, most of them have not been preserved in a systematic and easily discoverable way. If a researcher wanted to locate historical jests about a specific topic—Victorian gags about milkmen, for instance—how would they go about doing it? Jestbooks and comic periodicals from the period represent a tiny, and often unrepresentative, fraction of surviving historical comedy. Moreover, manually browsing through these collections is a laborious process. As a result, historical jokes are underused by historians. The Old Joke Archive project aims to address this problem. We are building an open access, digital archive filled with millions of historical jokes. This chapter presents the project as a case study for reflection on the methodological challenges involved in building a repository of historical humour, especially the problem of finding, extracting, categorising, and annotating jokes using automated digital tools, and of organising the archive’s metadata.

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