LitHits, a digital reading project led by Professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr and Dr Alexandra Paddock, has become a limited company and one of the first spinouts from the Humanities Division at Oxford. It also won ‘Highly Commended’ in the Inspiring Leadership category of the Vice-Chancellor’s Innovation Awards 2020.
LitHits began as an idea in 2017 about how to engage more people with literature, by allowing them to sample short, unabridged excerpts of literature on their phones. Each excerpt is introduced by a 2-3 sentence summary that puts the reader in the picture so they can plunge straight in and encounter the literature directly. The idea is to reframe reading by enabling people to select curated and unabridged excerpts according to the time they have available, and to sample and explore a rich mix of literature. For now LitHits’s library focuses on narrative fiction and non-fiction prose as these are often the hardest for general readers to find time for, but it will expand to include other genres and also literature in translation. The project draws on research into reading that has revealed several often surprising conclusions: reading is not on the decline, despite much hand-wringing over excessive mobile phone usage; reading in short bursts can be as valuable and immersive as longer-form engagement; and reading can have cognitive benefits (stimulation, a ‘hit’ or ‘kick’ like chilli or caffeine) beyond those normally associated with bibliotherapy (calming, soothing, reassuring).
Working with OUI (Oxford University Innovation), Professor Shepherd-Barr and her team created a prototype LitHits app, developed with IT Mobile web services at Oxford. This was tested with volunteer users in the summer of 2018, led by Dr Paddock, who has been with the project almost from the start and is now its Lead Curator and a co-director of the company along with David Gilbey, the LitHits business manager, and Professor Shepherd-Barr. They are now working with a professional app developer to create a version that will begin testing in the coming weeks. Please sign up on the LitHits website if you are interested in becoming a tester.
The team is hoping to raise investment over the next few months alongside its testing programme. A key requirement is the ability to scale rapidly: eventually, the app will have thousands of excerpts of varying lengths and types. The LitHits team is exploring the possibilities of using AI to help with this aspect of the project.
Over the summer LitHits collaborated with the Faculty of English to create The Ten-Minute Book Club, spearheaded by Professor Karen O’Brien (Head of Humanities) as a way for Humanities to make a direct positive impact during the pandemic. Dr Paddock oversaw the curation of the Ten-Minute Book Club, and several of the site’s excerpts come from the LitHits library. The Ten-Minute Book Club is a good way to understand what LitHits is about, especially its commitment to radical and fully integrated diversity and its social enterprise values.
Professor Ros Ballaster, Chair of the Faculty of English, comments: “LitHits is a trailblazing entrepreneurship project in the humanities and one of the first in English here at Oxford. It is modelling ways that a humanities subject can engage with business partners and transform its high-quality research into a cultural product that will serve public interest.”