My article on the transatlantic circulation of a nineteenth-century newspaper joke is currently free to access until June 30th 2013. Get it while you can!
A couple of days ago I received an e-mail informing me that one of my articles on digitisation was about to be published in Media History. I still feel pleasantly surprised whenever my work materializes in print, but this news was particularly unexpected – by the time it finally appeared I’d almost forgotten about writing it.
Looking back through my files, it seems that the first draft of the article was finished on 8 October 2010. The piece was accepted by the guest editors of a special issue of conference proceedings and, in March 2011, I submitted the finished version to the journal. 10 months later, the piece was peer reviewed and I submitted some minor revisions. It was officially accepted on the 18 of June 2012, and finally appeared online in January 2013.
More than two years have passed since I first wrote the article. A lot of things have happened to me in that time: I completed my PhD, wrote four other articles, worked at three different universities, moved house three times, crossed the Atlantic twice, learned to drive, and started this blog. The article, on the other hand, is largely the same as it was in October 2010. The editors, peer reviewers, and proofreaders that I worked with during this time all did a great job and I’m grateful to them for their help – the problem lies with the time it takes for the academic publishing system to process our work.
This isn’t an unusual situation. Most of us who submit our work to journals and edited collections endure a similarly lengthy wait. I’m fed up with it. Not because I’m inpatient, but because these delays diminish the value of our work and impede the free flow of academic conversation. My article was hardly at the cutting edge of digital humanities research back in in 2010, but in 2013 it’s definitely starting to look a little dusty. The ‘digital turn’ that I predicted is now well underway. Jim Mussell’s brilliant study of the Nineteenth Century Press in the Digital Age, a landmark text which came out in the intervening years, isn’t mentioned. Will anybody want to read an article that was outdated before it was even published? I suppose I’ll know in 2 years time when references to my work begin (or, more likely, don’t begin) to appear in the footnotes of subsequent articles.
Back in the mid-nineteenth century, conversations between Britain and America suffered from a similarly debilitating lag:
On Saturday 15 April 1865, Americans awoke to find their country in crisis. The previous evening, Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated in a Washington theatre. Within hours of the President’s death, details of the “dark and bloody tragedy” had begun “trembling over the wires” of the country’s telegraph network. By 10am the following morning, flags in San Francisco were flying at half-mast. By midday, newspapers in the East and mid-West had begun to publish detailed eye-witness accounts of the assassination. The story continued to loom large in the American press throughout the following week; the hunt for John Wilkes Booth, the inauguration of Andrew Johnson, and a range of public and political responses to the “national calamity” all commanded extensive coverage. On the other side of the Atlantic, however, news of the assassination was nowhere to be seen. Entirely unaware of events in Washington, the foreign intelligence columns of the London press dissected the closing chapters of the American Civil War – events which had taken place more than a fortnight earlier. The Glasgow Herald even published an unfortunate ‘Address to President Lincoln’ in which a local anti-slavery association wished him health and success during the next phase of his presidency. A week later, the situation remained unchanged. As grief-stricken crowds poured into Washington to witness the departure of Lincoln’s funeral train, London’s Morning Post summarised the proceedings of an Irish cattle show, the Leeds Mercury weighed the threat of a Russian plague epidemic, and the Daily News reported on the Home Secretary’s visit to Newcastle. It was not until the 27th of April that a Canadian mail steamer finally delivered news of the assassination to Britain. By the time Victorian readers had the opportunity to engage with the story, the President had been dead for almost two weeks…
The limits of transatlantic communication made it impossible for the media to keep up with the pace of events. Academic publishing suffers from a similar problem; it can’t keep up with the pace of our ideas.
Back in the nineteenth century, technology provided the answer:
Sixteen years later, when President Garfield was shot by a deranged office-seeker, the relationship between America and the British press had changed beyond recognition. This time, news of the attempted assassination reached Britain within hours. As Garfield’s life hung in the balance, hourly updates on his pulse, temperature, and respiration were telegraphed to British newspaper offices via the new Atlantic Cable. These updates were printed alongside the latest accounts of the shooting, descriptions of the assassin, reactions from the American press, responses of world markets, and messages of sympathy from international leaders. A President’s death, whilst generating a predictable surge of interest, was only part of a wider journalistic phenomenon. Each morning, the latest news stories from ‘across the pond’ appeared in newspapers throughout the country. Accounts of a political speech in Washington, a devastating fire in Nevada, a gruesome murder in Chicago, a gunfight in Indiana, and the closing prices at the New York stock exchange were printed by British provincial and metropolitan newspapers hours after being published in America.
Bob Nicholson, ‘Looming Large: America and the Late-Victorian Press, 1865-1901′, PhD Thesis, University of Manchester (2012), pp. 7-8.
Our version of the ‘Atlantic Cable’ is already in place. We live in an age of instantaneous global exchange, driven by the internet and realized most prominently through Twitter, blogging, and other forms of social media. Researchers are already using these platforms to communicate their ideas more rapidly. However, our professional careers remain frustratingly dependent on an antiquated system of academic publishing that only serves to impede the flow of conversation and restrict access to ideas.
The Open Access movement promises to provide some solutions to these problems. However, as Lucinda Matthews-Jones recently pointed out, the new financial models proposed by the Finch Report (which promises to transfer the cost of publishing to researchers and/or their institutions) are worrying. Under these proposals, the average cost of publishing an article is estimated to be somewhere in the region of £1700. Even if this amount is halved for humanities articles, it’s hard to account for such a large sum. The key labour (writing the article, peer review, editing) is all done for free by academics, which just leaves the cost of hosting the articles online. It costs me about £50 to run this blog for a year – in that time I’ve transmitted 15,000 words and received 12,000 hits. To put these numbers into context, no 7,000 word article I’ve written for an online journal has been viewed by more than 100 people. The numbers don’t add up.
Back in April, The Guardian described the open access movement as an ‘academic spring’ – just like protesters in Egypt, we need to make sure that our own revolution doesn’t end up back in the wrong hands. The solution is painfully obvious: cut out the publisher. All we need to do is develop a simple online publishing platform (something like JSTOR), charge UK universities a small fee to meet the hosting costs, and then publish everything on there with complete open access. We can still have journals with distinctive identities, issues, editorial teams, and peer review. We already do this stuff for free. Nor, for that matter, is there any logical reason why these journals should be any less prestigious than those offered by commercial publishers. We are the producers and the consumers. It’s time to put our foot down.
In the meantime, if you’d like to take a look at my article (I know I’ve done such a good job selling it to you) then here’s a link and an abstract:
Advances in digital technology have made the recent past seem like a foreign country. Media historians did things very differently in 2002. In the last decade, hundreds of historical newspapers and periodicals have been digitised and made available to researchers via online archives. Whilst the emergence of these resources has generated contrasting responses from historians, an increasing number of researchers are now embracing the new methodological possibilities created by keyword-searchable digital archives. As the first examples of this scholarship begin to appear on the horizon, this paper considers whether media history is on the cusp of a ‘digital turn’. It outlines the existing responses to digital methodologies, deconstructs digital newspapers in order to explore how they differ from their paper originals and uses case studies drawn from my own research into the late-Victorian transatlantic press to demonstrate how new methodologies might be applied.
It’s been a record breaking year for British sport. Bradley Wiggins won the Tour de France, Andy Murray triumphed at the U.S. Open, our Olympians earned an impressive stack of gold medals, and ex-footballer Gary Linekar celebrated his 18th year as the face of Walkers crisps. It’s a remarkable achievement. Speaking to Digital Spy back in March, the former England striker confidently proclaimed that he was responsible for spearheading “quite comfortably the longest-running celebrity-endorsed campaign” in advertising history.
He’s not even close. An advert has recently been doing the rounds in which Sherlock Holmes endorses the miraculous healing powers of Beechams Pills:
It’s not the great detective’s finest hour. Shorn of his deductive powers by a troublesome head cold, Holmes only regains his crime-solving abilities thanks to a timely dose of Beechams Ultra All In One. Conan Doyle must be spinning in his grave.
Holmes is rather vulnerable to this sort of treatment. The copyright on his adventures expired in 1980, leaving him open to all imaginable abuses and adaptations. However, it turns out that Beechams’ relationship with Sherlock pre-dates this landmark by quite some distance. Way back in 1893, the following advert began to appear in British papers:
Watson loses a ‘priceless’ box of medication and telegraphs his friend for help. Holmes turns up and, after demonstrating his trademark skills of deduction, solves the problem by giving Watson some of his Beecham’s Pills. “I always carry them with me”, he testifies, “and to their head clearing qualities I owe much of my success – in fact it is part of my SYSTEM to use them in my SYSTEM.”
This wasn’t a one-off affair. A few months later, as readers struggled to come to terms with the detective’s apparent death at the Reichenbach Falls, Beecham’s published ‘The Last Letter from Sherlock Holmes.’
A desperate-seeming Holmes has lost his ‘indispensable’ supply of Beecham’s Pills and writes to Watson in the hope that he will forward a large box to him with great urgency. Apparently the pills didn’t arrive in time to save him from Moriarty. A few years later, the same advert was used with a slightly different title (‘A Letter from Sherlock Holmes’) in order to suggest that the detective was still alive and had chosen to break his cover in order to obtain some more pills.
In May 1894 Beecham’s called upon Holmes’ celebrity once again:
This time the pills themselves become detectives. “Have you a clue? Do you miss anything? Is anything wrong? … Do not procrastinate. The detectives should at once be called in to play their part. Now, the ‘Sherlock Holmes’ in cases of this kind is Beecham’s Pills: no fear of them getting on the wrong scent… These private inquiry agents will… have a full report to make before they have done with you.” I’m almost tempted to try some myself.
It’d be fascinating to know whether the people behind Beecham’s current campaign are aware of these earlier adverts, or whether the whole thing is just a remarkable coincidence. Either way, Holmes’ 120 year association with the brand (voluntary or not) looks like a tricky total to beat. Until Linekar’s reanimated corpse is used to flog Space Quavers to the unfortunate people of the 22nd century, I reckon the record belongs to the man in the Deerstalker.
Full credit to Ryan Easterbrook (@RyanEasterbrook), one of my old Swansea students, for spotting the new advert!
Something’s wrong with me. As a self-styled Digital Victorianist I’m supposed to prefer pixels over print. I get my news online, my books on an e-reader, and for the last five years I’ve been preaching the gospel of digital history to anybody who’ll listen. I rarely put pen to paper (as anybody who’s received a barely legible Christmas card from me this year will attest). In fact, I can’t remember the last time I spent a whole day without looking at a computer. I am, in short, a dyed-in-the-wool screen junkie.
Or at least that’s what I thought. Lately I’ve been flirting with the dark side. A few weeks ago the good people at Historic Newspapers sent me a handsomely packaged selection of old periodicals. The first paper to catch my eye was a reprint of the London edition of The National Police Gazette from 26 May 1897. It’s a delightfully salacious paper filled with saucy illustrations of Victorian girls showing off their ankles, strapping boxers flexing their biceps, and the occasional portrait of a racehorse.
The most outrageous material appears in the adverts at the back of the paper. A notice for ‘Mrs Rose’s Famous Female Mixture’ offers to send female readers a discretely packaged bottle of medication designed to remove the most ‘OBSTINATE OBSTRUCTIONS’ in twelve hours. “Failure”, it claims, “is impossible”. Another advert promises to send readers photographs of ‘Footlight Favourites’ – glamorous young actresses “in Tights, Costume and Showing Bust”. Another promises an ‘Illustrated and Descriptive” catalog of ‘Rubber Specialities’. Most remarkably, a series of ‘booksellers’ advertise the sale of ‘spicy books & cards’ with such intriguing titles as ‘Revelations of Girlhood’, ‘Awful Disclosures in a Nunnery’, ’16 positions of matrimony’, ‘Confessions of a Gay Young Footman’ and, rather incongruously, the ‘Complete Works of Aristotle’(an infamous contraception manual). If these don’t do the trick, male readers suffering from ‘nervous exhaustion’ are encouraged to write to a Mr J. Murray in return for details of a ‘scientific cure’. It’s like walking into a Soho phone box.
You’ll be surprised to learn that The National Police Gazette isn’t available online yet. Its particular brand of late-Victorian sport and low-brow sleaze hasn’t propelled it to the top of the British Library’s digitisation list, though personally I can’t think why. Even if it was accessible through digital archives, the experience of reading it online wouldn’t have been anything like as pleasurable as perusing it in print. It’s the kind of paper that begs to be creased, torn, and covered in dirt. It should be folded up, stuffed in a back pocket, and read at a bus stop. The collection of smutty adverts belongs on the back page of the paper – it’s a distinctive physical space that makes their thinly veiled innuendo seem all the more risque. If I’d arrived at them through a key-word search I’d have missed a vital part of their material identity; the screen just can’t capture their essential grubbiness.
There’s something powerful about seeing an old newspaper in the flesh. Next in my pack were two papers from the Edwardian period: a reprint of The Daily Mirror from April 1912 and an original copy of The Times from April 1911. They’re separated by less than a year but at first glance they seem centuries apart. The front page of the mirror is devoted to the memory of W. T. Stead (the pioneering journalist who died on the Titanic) and features several photographs along with a bold headline. It’s compact tabloid format makes it easy to pick up, manipulate, and carry around. The Times, on the other hand, is much weightier. The densely packed pages of print make it look heavy, but it’s only when you open it up and start to read it that the sheer size of the thing really hits you.
I was halfway through reading the first column before my arms started to ache. Maneuvering it into a more comfortable position is tricky – particularly for somebody more used to reading news on a smartphone than a broadsheet. It pins you down; chains you to your seat. Forget about carrying it around with you. If I tried to open it up during my commute home I’d take up half the train carriage. Whilst the Daily Mirror and the National Police Gazette would cheerfully fit in my jacket pocket, I’d have to carry The Times under my arm – a statement of old-fashioned Englishness that just begs to be accompanied by a black umbrella and a bowler hat. In material terms, it offers a completely different experience.
All of this stuff is pretty obvious – particularly to anybody who read broadsheet newspapers before the rise of the Berliner format – and yet there’s still something revelatory about picking up a Victorian newspaper and feeling its weight and texture in your hands. It’s a different experience to searching digital copies, spooling through microfilm, or even browsing leather-bound volumes. There’s something rather magical about it; a sense of communing more closely with the past.
Recognising the material life of our texts isn’t just pleasurable, it’s important. As Leah Price has recently reminded us, books and newspapers “mattered to the Victorians in ways that cannot be explained by their printed content alone. And whether displayed, defaced, exchanged, or discarded, printed matter participated, and still participates, in a range of transactions that stretches far beyond reading.”
I showed the papers to some of my students and they were equally enthralled. I only intended to give them a minute or two of browsing whilst I set up my PowerPoint presentation, but we ended up spending the best part of half an hour pouring over them. Digital archives, for all of their wondrous qualities, just don’t have the same magnetic effect.
This isn’t a Damascene conversion. I’m still an unreserved enthusiast when it comes to digital archives – they allow us to do so many things that we couldn’t do before, and the mysterious possibility of the empty search box brings its own sense of excitement. But, for now at least, I’m enjoying a brief flirtation with the pleasures of print.
If you’d like to get your hands on your own copies of some old newspapers, I heartily recommend www.historic-newspapers.co.uk. They’ve got a great selection of content and the papers come beautifully packaged. If you need a last minute gift for the Victorianist in your life, you can’t go wrong with a copy of the National Police Gazette!
Peter Jackson spent somewhere in the region of $150 million dollars on the first instalment of his Hobbit trilogy. My first foray into film making comes in slightly under his budget. Last weekend, I had a go at converting one of my favourite old conference papers to video. The aim was to enter one of the BBC’s recent academic talent competitions, but my finished entry stretched so far over the prescribed 2 minute limit that I’ve almost certainly disqualified myself.
I got a bit carried away. On Saturday morning I started with a webcam and a basic script; by Sunday evening my home office had been converted into a makeshift film studio. A sizeable chunk of Jackson’s cash was spent on high tech CGI facilities, but it turns out that similar effects can be achieved with some sheets of green paper, a roll of sellotape, and a pair of Primark trouser hangers. Who needs a tripod when you’ve got an unsteady pile of overdue library books? The biggest saving, of course, comes from casting somebody who already looks a bit like Gollum.
You can view the result below. A full-length, twenty minute, epic version of the Skedaddle story should hit YouTube sometime in the new year.
My article on the transatlantic circulation of a 19th century newspaper joke has just been published in the Journal of Victorian Culture.
‘You Kick the Bucket; We Do the Rest!’: Jokes and the Culture of Reprinting in the Transatlantic Press
“In December 1893 the Conservative candidate for Flintshire addressed an audience at Mold Constitutional Club. After he had finished attacking Gladstone and the local Liberal incumbent, he ended his speech with a joke. He advised the Conservative party to adopt, with regard to the government, the sign of an American undertaker: ‘You kick the bucket; we do the rest’. How did a sign belonging to a Nevadan undertaker become the subject of a joke told at a political meeting in North Wales? This unlikely question forms the basis of this article. Using new digital archives, it tracks the journey of the gag from its origins in New York, its travels around America, its trip across the Atlantic, its circulation throughout Britain and its eventual leap into political discourse. The article uses the joke to illuminate the workings of a broader culture of transatlantic reprinting. During the final quarter of the nineteenth century miscellaneous ‘snippets’ cut from the pages of the American press became a staple feature of Britain’s bestselling newspapers and magazines. This article explores how these texts were imported, circulated and continually rewritten in dynamic partnership between authors, editors and their readers.”
A collage I pulled together also made it to the front page!
This issue also houses a great Digital Forum on social media featuring articles by @RohanMaitzen and @AmberRegis. Check it out!
It’s been nearly ten years since the launch of Eighteenth Century Collections Online [ECCO]. This ambitious project aimed to digitise “every significant English-language and foreign-language title printed in Great Britain during the eighteenth century, along with thousands of important works from the Americas.” The definition of a ‘significant’ text remains open to interpretation, but the contents of the archive are undeniably impressive – in its present form it contains more than 180,000 titles. The unparalleled breadth of its coverage – along with the number of university libraries that took up subscriptions – quickly established it as a key focal point for the researching and teaching of eighteenth-century history.In other words, it’s a tough act to follow.
Enter Nineteenth Century Collections Online [NCCO]. This recently launched project follows in the footsteps of its eighteenth-century predecessor and, in the words of its publisher Gale Cengage, aims to be “the most ambitious scholarly digitisation and publication program ever undertaken.” The archive will contain millions of pages of nineteenth-century books, periodicals, diaries, letters, manuscripts, photographs, government records, pamphlets, and maps. More interestingly, it promises researchers the opportunity to subject these sources to some interesting new forms of qualitative and quantitative analysis. I’ve spent the last few days playing around with a trial version and, whilst it’s too soon to write a full review, I have a few preliminary thoughts on how it’s shaping up.
NCCO contains such an eclectic range of sources that it’s difficult at first to get a handle on all of its contents. In fact, it makes more sense to think of NCCO as a customisable research platform that houses a series of themed archives. By the looks of things, it’ll be possible for libraries to select which archives they want to subscribe to. At present, three archives are available, each of which contains a series of sub-collections:
- Asia and the West: Diplomacy and Cultural Exchange
British Foreign Office correspondence on Japan; dispatches and records from U.S. consuls in various Asian territories; missionary correspondence and journals; periodicals on Asian culture and society.
- British Politics and Society
British Cabinet Papers, 1880-1916; British Labour History Ephemera; British Trade Union History Collection; Civil Disturbance, Chartism and Riots in Nineteenth Century England; Colonial Defence Commission under Lord Carnarvon; Diaries of Sir Frederick Madden; Discontent and Authority, 1820-1840; Transactions of the Manchester Statistic Society I & II; Home Office papers, records, and correspondence; the Police Gazette, 1828-1845; Ordnance Survey Drawings, 1789-1840; Papers and Correspondence of Charles James Fox, 1749-1806; Papers of Sir Robert Peel; Working Class Autobiographies; papers relating to Radicalism, Anti-Radicalism and Reform, 1769-1861; ephemera relating to British social and working conditions, politics, and economics, 1770s-1850s; the papers of John Cam Hobhouse, 1809-1869; rare freethought militant 19th century books; rare radical and labour periodicals; letters relating to the Jack the Ripper killings; books, pamphlets, and periodicals relating to working-class politics.
- European Literature, 1790-1840: The Corvey Collection
A collection of rare English (3,250 works), French (3,658) and German (2,653) Romantic-era writing.
A fourth collection, ‘British Theatre, Music, and Literature: High and Popular Culture’, will be released soon. It promises to contain a range of playbills, scripts, scores, and other pieces of theatrical ephemera. Presumably, if the product is successful, a steady stream of new archives will be announced over the coming years.
It’s hard to review such a disparate collection of items – historians of the period will each find different elements of the archives interesting. In general terms, the main thing to note is that these collections are more curated than many previous archives. Rather than digitise millions of pages of books and newspapers and then throw them together, the collections in NCCO are carefully compiled and well presented. There’s an impressive amount of background information provided for each archive, and brief summaries for most of the sub-collections too. Here’s what you’ll find if you access the Jack the Ripper letters from within the British Politics and Society collection:
There are pros and cons to using such a carefully curated archive. On the plus side, browsing through its contents is more user friendly – it’s much easier to casually meander through the archive when everything is clearly subdivided and signposted. The sub-collections should also make it easier for teachers to set more focused and manageable research tasks for undergraduate students. However, there are downsides to an archive in which all of the documents have been carefully picked out for their historical ‘significance’ and thematic relevance. Namely, the opportunity for new discoveries feels more limited. I’m sure that there are plenty of secrets still to be uncovered in NCCO‘s collections, but browsing through its contents isn’t quite as exciting as exploring the ‘vast terra incognita of print’ that has been opened up in recent years by large-scale newspaper digitisation projects. Each visit to the British Library Newspaper Archive [BLNA] brings with it the promise of exploring virgin territory; it’s likely that many of the articles you’ll encounter haven’t been read since the day they were published. By comparison, NCCO’s collections feel like well-trodden ground. Of course, the ability to search these documents by keyword should lead to new discoveries, connections, and perspectives that weren’t available using conventional archives.
The methodological possibilities of any digital archive are determined in large part by its interface. I’ve always been a fan of Gale’s work in this area – compared to their competitors, their interfaces and search tools are usually faster and more user friendly. The British Library Newspaper Archive isn’t without its design faults, but its interface is quicker than similar databases by ProQuest and far more user-friendly than the disastrous efforts of UK Press Online. The BLNA, like the Times Digital Archive before it, was based on a relatively straightforward html interface which displayed its images as jpegs. This format allowed newspaper articles to load quickly and for users to save or copy them with a quick right-click of the mouse. It was simple, but it worked. In recent years, however, Gale has introduced a more high-tech, flash-based interface. Users of NewsVault and the Illustrated London News Digital Archive will already be familiar with the basic components of this new interface. Here’s how it looks:
It has some nifty new features – you can zoom in and out of an article more quickly (though not as smoothly as in the new British Newspaper Archive), alter brightness and contrast levels, rotate the image, view it in full-screen, and view separate sections of the source simultaneously by using the ‘split-screen’ feature. Newspaper articles are also displayed in their true context, with the rest of the page faded out slightly. The new interface lets you tag items (with both public and private keywords), create personal annotations and bookmarks, and export references to leading citation managers. The site is also compatible with Zotero – a welcome new feature that promises to make the organisation of primary research materials much easier. Unfortunately, the plugin just downloads the metadata for your chosen document and not the document itself.
Which leads us on to one of the problems with NCCO‘s new interface. It’s no longer possible to right click an image and save it as a jpeg. Instead, you have to use the archive’s own ‘download’ button – a feature that only allows you to save the document in pdf format. If you want to copy it over to a PowerPoint presentation, you’ll have to convert this pdf into an image file yourself or, alternatively, capture it as a screenshot. It’s perfectly possible, but it’s a nuisance and represents a regrettable step backwards in terms of speed and efficiency. Fortunately, the quality of the downloads is good – far better than the near-unreadable articles provided via the download feature of the British Newspaper Archive. It’s also possible to download the raw OCR data at a txt file. Gale’s decision to reveal this information is very welcome, but in this instance the BNA‘s solution is more elegant and its user-correction tool is more ambitious.
The other drawback of the flash interface is the space devoted to viewing documents. Put simply, the interface gets in the way. Here’s another screenshot. This time, I’ve shaded the interface red and left the area devoted to the document itself unshaded:
The first thing to note is the enormous amount of unused white space on either side of the archive’s main interface. I appreciate that not everybody has the luxury of using a 24″ widescreen monitor, but it’s a shame for this space to go unused when (as you can see) it’s not possible to see the entirety of the article in the small amount of space allotted to it. Contrast this interface with the old one used by the British Library Newspaper Archive:
Here, the whole screen is used and it’s possible (with a quick flick of my mouse’s scroll wheel) to view an entire newspaper page at once. The new interface certainly looks cleaner and more elegant, but this elegance comes at a cost. The most important thing about the database is the experience of browsing through its documents, but it currently feels like I’m looking at the world through a letterbox. This is particularly irritating when viewing newspapers. The full-screen feature provides a partial solution to this problem, but it’s a nuisance having to fire this up each time you want to view a document. For all of the powerful new search tools at our disposal, digital archives still require us to slog through hundreds (sometimes thousands) of potentially relevant sources before finding the ones that we need. In order to do this kind of research, it’s absolutely essentially to be able to examine and rule out irrelevant documents quickly. If you’ve got to enter full-screen, tweak the zoom level, and scroll around a bit before making these decisions it eats up time – an extra five seconds fiddling with each document soon mounts up over the course of a day’s research. Fortunately, the search interface includes a ‘Keywords in Context’ feature that allows you to preview the appearance of your search terms before loading an item in full – again, however, the BNA‘s solution of providing this contextual information by default (rather than after a mouse-click) is more elegant.
It’s hard to offer constructive solutions to these problems – flash interfaces provide us with some useful new tools, but I’ve yet to be convinced that the loss of speed and the cramped screen is worth it. A larger viewing area and a more fluid browsing experience would help to address some of the drawbacks.
NCCO’s search interface is typically powerful. As usual, it’s possible to select a number of different search types (Keyword, document title, entire document, etc) and limit searches by range of additional properties. Gale’s peculiar decision to draw a distinction between ‘keyword’ and ‘entire document’ searches remains a problem – I’ve lost count of the number of experienced researchers who mistakenly thought that they were searching the entire British Library Newspaper Database only for me to point out that they’d only been searching for ‘keywords’ (the title of the article plus the first few sentences). Gale are alone in this idiosyncratic use of the term ‘keyword’ and their decision to persist with it presents frustrating a obstacle to new users. Aside from this, however, the number of options available through the advanced search interface is excellent.
For digital humanities enthusiasts like me, perhaps the most exciting thing about NCCO is its two new search tools. First up is the Graphing Tool. Put simply, this new tools allows you to enter a keyword, specify a date range, and then track how often it appears in the archive using a line graph. A search for the term ‘America’ is displayed below:
An image like this should be familiar to fans of Google’s ngram viewer – a freely accessible search tool that lets you track the changing frequency of word usage in the Google Books archive. Tracking this kind of information is an imprecise way to map cultural change, but a carefully constructed search can identify broad trends and help researchers to view topics from a new perspective – I make occasional use of them in my PhD thesis and discuss their methodological potential in a forthcoming article for the Journal of Victorian Culture. So, I was undeniably excited when I learned that Gale was introducing a similar tool. Unfortunately, the results are disappointing. The tool is undermined by a fundamental methodological flaw. Put simply, it doesn’t take account of the fluctuating number of documents in the archive. If there are 1 million pages available for one year, but 10 million pages available for the next, it doesn’t take a genius to recognise that most graphs will have an upwards trajectory. Google solves this problem by measuring results as a percentage of the total number of words – that way, it doesn’t matter whether the archive expands or contracts. Unfortunately, NCCO’s graphing tool just displays the raw number of articles and makes no attempt to normalise the data.
Fluctuations in genre are also a problem. If coverage for the 1850s is mostly made up of newspapers, but the 1860s is dominated by political pamphlets, it’s impossible to make valid comparisons. The obvious solution to this problem is to allow users to select their own documents to search. Unfortunately, the graphing tool has been detached from the advanced search interface and has far less flexibility when it comes to constructing a query. It’s possible to restrict searches to four broad content types (manuscripts, maps, monographs, and newspapers), but this isn’t subtle enough to create methodologically sound searches. In sum, the tool is an interesting way to visualise search results but isn’t particularly useful for serious quantitative research. It’s a missed opportunity but, if it could be fixed, NCCO would represent an interesting step forward for digital research methodologies.
The second new feature is the Term Clusters tool. This text-mining tool identifies linguistic patterns and connections between documents. The graph below shows a search for the term ‘humour’:
The inner ring shows the terms that frequently appear within the first 100 words of each item in the search results – so, articles about humour frequently feature the words ‘novel’, ‘good’, and the term ‘Yankee Humour’. The outer ring performs the search again (this time on an inner-ring term) and reveals a new set of connections – so, articles featuring the term ‘Yankee Humour’ are also likely to include the words ‘miss’, ‘doctor’, and ‘heir’. Excerpts from these articles are displayed to the right. I confess that I was a bit confused by this tool at first, but the more I play with it the more impressed I’ve become. It’s a great way to identify previously unseen patterns and connections between material. I’d love to apply this tool (and a modified version of the graphing tool) to the British Library Newspaper Archive – with any luck, we’ll see them integrated into NewsVault sooner rather than later.
So, all in all, there’s some good news and bad news here. The contents of the archive are interesting, eclectic and well curated. There’s plenty here for researchers to get stuck into and the sub-collections will provide some interesting teaching opportunities. The interface has a lot of useful new features, but the move from html to flash continues to result in a clunky and cramped browsing experience. The core search interface is excellent and the introduction of innovative new search tools is exciting. Term clusters are a particularly intriguing new addition to our armoury, but the graphing tool needs a bit more work before its full potential is fulfilled. It’s too early to tell whether NCCO will have the same impact as its eighteenth-century predecessor. It’s entering a far more crowded market place (the sheer volume of nineteenth-century material available in digital archives is already staggering) and doing so at a time when library budgets are contracting. However, there’s enough here to suggest that NCCO may well become the next leading digital platform for nineteenth-century research – if they iron out a few of the problems this wouldn’t be a bad thing.
In Mary Shelley’s version of the story, Victor Frankenstein locks himself in a laboratory for two years in order to pursue his scientific research. He is driven by an insatiable appetite for discovery, but when he finally witnesses the results of his labours he is filled with an overpowering sense of dread:
“I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart. Unable to endure the aspect of the being I had created, I rushed out of the room…”
I was reminded of this passage a few weeks ago on the morning of my PhD viva. It had been more than a month since I had last read my thesis, but in preparation for the big event I plucked up the courage to have a final look. It was a mistake. Every page seemed to bring a fresh disaster; a grammatical error here, a missing footnote there, and so many sentences that I longed to rewrite. Three and a half years earlier I had set out to create something beautiful. Now, as I looked upon it with fresh eyes, I saw only a monster; a hideous mess of typos, disjointed ideas, gaping holes, and embarrassing errors. I wanted to destroy it; to hide my shame from family, friends and colleagues. But it was too late. I had already branded the monster with my name and released it into the world. Soon, I thought, the villagers would come with their pitchforks and torches and drive me out of academia for good.
As it turns out, things went a bit better than I expected. My examiners were extremely positive about the thesis and only identified a few minor typographical errors that needed to be fixed. We had some stimulating conversations about how the project might be developed into a monograph and, before I knew it, it was all over. I polished off the corrections in a few hours and, last Tuesday, I submitted the final bound version of the thesis. I’m done. I’d ask you to call me Dr. Bob, but it makes me sound like a talk show host with a degree in ‘Relationship Science’ from an online university.
When I collected the final, hardbound version of the thesis from the printers, I had a more positive Frankenstein moment. This time, I felt more like Colin Clive’s demented scientist from the 1931 film who greets the success of his experiment in a slightly different fashion:
Swap the noise of crashing thunder for the sound of a laser printer, and you’ve pretty much got the scenario that was playing out in my head. Unfortunately, no friends were on hand to hold me back as I proclaimed myself a god, so I thanked the man behind the desk and quietly shuffled out.
The euphoria of that moment – of seeing my creation materialise – lasted for a few giddy days, but has now passed. It was all a useful lesson in the importance of perspective. I had spent hours agonising over tiny, insignificant defects, whilst remaining blind to the bigger picture. Like a lot of writers, I had a distorted image of my own work and found it difficult to see the positives without somebody else pointing them out. I still feel anxious about releasing my creation into the world, but now as I look upon it with less anxious eyes I suspect that it’s more likely to be met with indifference than abject horror.
If you want to test this theory yourself, copies of the thesis should be in Manchester University library and on EThOS soon. If you’d like to read a digital version, send me a tweet/email and I’ll forward a pdf. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the project, here’s the abstract:
Bob Nicholson, ‘Looming Large: America and the Victorian Press, 1865-1902′, (2012).
Widespread popular fascination with America, and an appreciation of American culture, was not introduced by Hollywood cinema during the early decades of the 20th century, but emerged during the late-Victorian period and was driven by the popular press. By the 1880s, newspaper audiences throughout the country were consuming fragments of American life and culture on an almost daily basis. Under the impulses of the so-called ‘new journalism’, representations of America appeared regularly within an eclectic range of journalistic genres, including serialised fiction, news reports, editorials, humour columns, tit-bits, and travelogues. Forms of American popular culture – such as newspaper gags – circulated throughout Britain and enjoyed a sustained presence in bestselling papers. These imported texts also acted as vessels for the importation of other elements of American culture such as the country’s distinctive slang and dialects.
This thesis argues that the late-Victorian popular press acted as the first major ‘contact zone’ between America and the British public. Chapter One tracks the growing presence of America in the Victorian press. In particular, it highlights how the expansion of the popular press, the widespread adoption of ‘scissors-and-paste’ journalism, the development of transatlantic communications networks and technologies, and a growing curiosity about life in America combined to facilitate new forms of Anglo-American cultural exchange. Chapter Two explores how the press shaped British encounters with American modernity and created a pervasive sense of a coming ‘American future’. Chapter Three focuses on the importation, circulation, and reception of American newspaper humour. Finally, Chapter Four unpacks the role played by the press in the importation, circulation, and assimilation of American slang.
It makes an original contribution to a number of academic disciplines and debates. Firstly, it challenges the established chronology of Anglo-American history; America gained a significant foothold in British popular culture long before the twentieth century. Moreover, this was not a result of a forcible American ‘invasion’ but a form of voluntary transatlantic exchange driven by the tastes and desires of British newspaper readers. Secondly, it argues that America’s presence in late-Victorian popular culture has been underestimated by historians who have focused instead on domestically produced culture, engagements with Western Europe, and the cultural dimensions of Empire. Whilst the full extent of America’s significance cannot be mapped out in one study, this thesis establishes the extent of America’s cultural presence and makes the case for its insertion into future Victorian Studies scholarship. Thirdly, this thesis contributes to the growing field of press history. It maps out connections between British and American newspapers, exploring how the press served to move information between the old world and the new. Finally, this project acts as an early example of born-digital scholarship; a study conceived in response to the development of digital archives. As such, it contributes to discussions on digital methodologies and debates within the field of Digital Humanities. In particular, it demonstrates that digitisation allows researchers to research and write do new kinds of history; to ask new questions, make new connections, and develop new projects – to do things that we couldn’t do before.
Or, if you’d prefer, here it is in image form:
If you’d like to see what a Digital Victorianist looks like in the flesh (hint: pasty and out of shape) then you might like to come and see one of my forthcoming talks. Over the next 6 months I’ll be giving at least four conference papers:
- 17th March 2012 – “Goodbye, old fellow, I must skedaddle!”: Reading the American Voice in the Late-Victorian Press
London Nineteenth-Century Studies Seminar, Institute of English Studies, 11:00-17:00. Free entry [details available here]
- 16th -17th April 2012 – Imagining America: W. T. Stead’s Vision of the New World
W. T. Stead: Centenary Conference for a Newspaper Revolutionary, British Library. Registration (until 31 January 2012): £70 (£60 postgraduates / over 65s); Day rate: £45 (no concessions). [details available here]
- 21st – 23rd June – “Goodbye, old fellow, I must skedaddle!”: American Slang and the Victorian Popular Press
5th Annual British Scholar Conference, University of Edinburgh. [details available here]
- 5th July- 7th July – The Laughter of Good Fellowship? Negotiating the past, present, and future in Anglo-American humour, 1870-1900
History and Humour – 1800 to Present, Freiburg University. [details available soon]
As of next week I’ll also be leaving Manchester to take up a temporary lecturing post at Swansea University. If you find yourself in South Wales (and have nothing better to do) then stop by and say hello!
Last night Jim Mussell posted an excellent review of the British Newspaper Archive on his blog. He makes a number of really important points that I skirted over in my own review. I recommend reading Jim’s post in its entirety. However, one of his arguments is particularly worth emphasizing:
This leads me to my second point: the way brightsolid have digitized this material also restricts possible uses. This is a resource for finding articles, not reading newspapers, and this is done by brightsolid’s search engine and database on the user’s behalf. There is no scope here for data mining, for analysis of textual transcripts, or for the interrogation of metadata. This actually runs counter to the dominant trend within both the digital humanities and commercial digital publishing, making BNA seem a little old fashioned. Gale Cengage’s NCCO, for instance, allows users to carry out rudimentary data mining. This is no mere moan about the way the project was executed. Taking advantage of the digital properties of digitized materials is the way in which we learn new things about them. Locking the data away means that users are stuck with old methodologies, treating the articles as if they were printed paper even though they clearly aren’t….
… There is no chance for any of this content to enter digital culture, becoming recontextualized as it interacts with other content; instead, it is trapped within the interface, pretending that it is paper, so users can read articles, one after the other. On these terms, it must be said, the BNA is excellent (and let me repeat, the page viewer is one of the best I have seen); but as a resource that contributes to the UK economy, scholarship, or even one that helps us learn more about nineteenth-century print culture, it is limited.
I can’t even begin to stress how important this is. The practical benefits of digitisation are well recognised. Improvements in speed, access, volume, and convenience are routinely celebrated. When asked to describe how digital archives have changed their lives, many historians highlight the fact that they no longer have to visit the British Library whenever they want to consult a newspaper. Others rejoice that their lives are no longer blighted by malfunctioning microfilm readers. Keyword search engines are widely recognised as a time saving device; a handy tool which helps researchers to find material quicker than by hand. So far, in other words, digitisation has largely been treated as a practical revolution – it has made research faster, easier, more convenient, and more productive.
These practical improvements are welcome, but digitisation is capable of so much more. It has the potential not just to change the day-to-day practice of research, but to fundamentally alter the kind of research that we are able do. Used creatively, it allows us to access and explore past cultures and societies in powerful new ways; to ask new questions, make new connections, construct new arguments, explore new topics, and re-examine old ones from new perspectives. It allows us to imagine new kinds of research.
In order to unlock these new methodological possibilities we need to be able to take full advantage of what Jim terms the “digital properties of digitized materials”. Researchers in the digital humanities have already started to do this with other archives of nineteenth-century print culture. Dan Cohen and Fred Gibbs have been text mining millions of titles of nineteenth-century books in order to explore changes in the Victorian frame of mind. A team of Harvard scientists have recently given this particular brand of the Digital Humanities the name of ‘culturomics’. In their study, they text-mined a corpus of 5 million digitised books and quantified the evolution of grammar, the speed at which society forgets its past, the adoption of new technologies, the effects of censorship, and the changing nature of fame. Best of all, this project inspired the creation of Google’s Ngram Viewer – a publicly accessible tool for plotting the frequency of words in the Google Books archive.
This research is still in its embryonic stage, but it hints at future possibilities. Unfortunately, we are currently unable to interrogate nineteenth-century newspaper archives with the same freedom and creativity. The raw materials are all in place – sources have been digitised and marked up with usable metadata – but the interfaces don’t allow us to ask the right questions. They’re designed for one, very basic form of digital research: keyword searches that lead to close reading.
If we want to do anything more ambitious, we need to design new interfaces. Recent projects like Connected Histories and Locating London’s Past are great examples of how this can work. Both websites allow researchers to explore existing archives in new ways. It is now possible, for example, to plot cases from the Old Bailey Online archive onto an 18th century map of London.
This is where the key problem with the BNA arises. By giving control of the archive to Brightsolid and allowing them to put it behind a paywall, the British Library have prevented researchers from developing similarly innovative new ways of exploring its data. Without the freedom to develop new interfaces, we lose the power to frame new questions. Without the power to frame new questions, we won’t be able to find new answers. The potential of digitisation to reveal new insights into the past will be squandered.
The good news is that it’s not too late to fix these problems. The data is there to be reused, if its ‘owners’ will allow us. As Jim argues:
One can only hope that the British Library does not now consider this material ‘done’, It is essential that they recognize that this is one possible implementation, one possible representation of this content amongst many others, and so should be open to other uses of the data – whether transcripts, page images, or metadata – that might come along in the future.