Right book… right time… right place

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr and colleagues have developed the award-winning LitHits app, which allows users to access great literature in unexpected ways.

LitHits was Highly Commended in the ‘Inspiring Leadership’ category, of the Vice Chancellor Innovation Awards 2020

LitHits logoLitHits.
The LitHits app provides short, unabridged excerpts of literature based on how much time users have and the type of text they feel like reading. Each excerpt includes a two or three sentence introduction and a link to the full text.

“LitHits helps people find something that fits whatever time they have – wherever they are. At the bus stop… on a break from work… winding down before bed,” says LitHits founder Kirsten Shepherd-Barr. “They can sample literature just like they’d sample food or try on clothes – without having to commit to the entire text.”

LitHits builds on Shepherd-Barr and co-director Dr Alexandra Paddock’s decades of experience in researching and teaching literature, combined with research into new publishing technologies and how we read digitally. Shepherd-Barr rejects the suggestion that promoting literary excerpts signals a loss of interest in reading or the ‘death of the book’. “It’s really the opposite,” she explains. “The pieces themselves are not cut or simplified, and the range and diversity of literature we feature opens up new genres, authors and periods of literature that widen the reading experience.”

Paddock adds: “One of our aims is to show that ‘great’ literature is truly inclusive. We want to be a tool to help people think differently about how to find something to read, to resist centuries of bias in literary fame, and to celebrate brilliant writers who have been left out of the canon of ‘classic’ literature.”

Research clearly shows that reading enhances mental health and well-being and is particularly useful to isolated groups such as older people – but the benefits are not just about calming anxiety. “Literature can also be beneficial when it is challenging, when it stimulates and even disrupts,” says Shepherd-Barr. “The name LitHits signals literature’s ‘hits’ but it also refers to the ‘hit’ or ‘kick’ these challenging extracts give to boost cognitive and emotional activity – almost like a shot of chili or caffeine.”

LitHits is currently planning a trial with English teachers who will be given early access to the app to help them motivate their students to read beyond the set GCSE and A-level curricula. The team has also conducted research with healthy ageing and literacy-promotion groups which confirmed the role of literature in alleviating isolation and cognitive decline.

LitHits developed and piloted its first prototype app in 2018 and a second, produced with an independent, external app developer, is currently being tested. Now a registered company, LitHits is one of the first spinouts in the Humanities Division and, led by Business Developer David Gilbey, is talking to commercial partners about external investment.

“LitHits is modelling the way the humanities can be both a social and commercial enterprise and transform world-leading research into a cultural product available to everyone,” says Shepherd-Barr. “It’s important that we don’t assume that enterprise is just about the Sciences. The humanities are full of exciting innovation possibilities!”

“In the midst of a pandemic, reading is more important than ever to provide enrichment, to help us enlarge our worlds, understand the experience of others, and build our own resilience,” Shepherd-Barr observes. “We’re very excited that the LitHits app will extend this opportunity to so many more people and we look forward to its official launch in 2021.”

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr is Professor of English and Theatre Studies in the Faculty of English and a Tutorial Fellow of St Catherine's College

Funders: UCSF University Challenge Seed Fund, University of Oxford, BEP Business Engagement Partnership, Humanities Division, University of Oxford, The Van Houten Fund, University of Oxford.