Cultural historians don’t like graphs. The linguistic turn and the advent of postmodernism have made us much more comfortable with the ambiguity, plurality and subjectivity of ‘texts’, but correspondingly suspicious about the rigidity of numbers. Rather than search for material or (dare one say it?) objective truths backed by hard data, we prefer to track the emergence of ideas, analyse representations, deconstruct discourse and develop nuanced interpretations of past cultures that can rarely be expressed in quantitative terms. This approach has served us well. Qualitative readings of Victorian culture have provided countless new insights into the ideas that shaped the period. It would be difficult to argue, for example, that Judith Walkowitz’s seminal study of sexuality in fin-de-siècle London would have been enriched by a pie chart. However, it is important to recognise that methodologies based on the close reading of Victorian culture have an important limitation. Put simply, there is too much of it to read. Google’s extensive (though by no means exhaustive) database currently lists at least 1.6 million books published in nineteenth-century Britain. To this we must add millions of pages of newspapers, magazines, periodicals, pamphlets, playbooks, advertisements, and other forms of printed ephemera. Even the most devoted scholars of the period will only read a fraction of this total. Faced with this mountain of print, we have two choices: to continue subjecting tiny fragments of Victorian culture to close reading, or to supplement this approach by exploring a much larger proportion of the archive through ‘distant reading’. This article offers a practical guide on how this kind of 'distant reading' might be accomplished.
These are exciting times. The emergence of digital newspaper archives is presently transforming the possibilities of our research. The vast, unexplored terrain of nineteenth-century periodicals is now opening up to us; every meeting of the Research Society for Victorian Periodicals brings with it news of exciting new discoveries. This article argues that we need to extend this thrill of discovery into the classroom. It starts by discussing the pioneering online archives that first sparked my own (rather unexpected) love for history, before discussing how I have recently attempted to integrate these resources into my teaching.
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.