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Ownership, Institutions, and Methodology
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Ownership, Institutions, and Methodology

My own area of research, the study of nineteenth-century serials, has been and will continue to be radically transformed by the impact of digital technologies. Whereas before periodicals were the main objects of study for a relatively small group of scholars, and were treated as a source of background information for most others, the digitization of the nineteenth-century print archive, through the simple fact of making this material more accessible, has the potential to return the periodical to its central place in nineteenth-century studies. Whereas previously the study of periodicals meant recourse to indices and hours over bound volumes in libraries, it is now possible to search and read a vast range of titles from your desktop. However, the proximity of the nineteenth-century periodical archive to nineteenth-century research is not enough: without developing corresponding methodological approaches in how to think about and use these resources, we remain trapped in methodologies shaped by our encounters with certain forms of printed objects in certain dusty rooms.

The amenable condition of the periodical press for digitization – there is lots of it; it is largely out of copyright; substantial swathes of it are available on microfilm; there are demonstrable profits to be made – has lead to a situation where there are, at present, three large digital projects, all of which are producing large resources of nineteenth-century periodicals. Two of these resources are being produced by private companies, Proquest and Gale, and the third is by the British Library (but distributed by Gale). Of these, JISC (the Joint Information Systems Committee) will provide free access for to the British Library project for HE institutions, while access to the other two is by subscription from Proquest and Gale respectively.1 This immediately raises the question of ownership: as the material that is digitised is in the public domain and looked after by public institutions, should the public have to pay again for access to it? Scanning material and constructing appropriate user interfaces and data structures is labour intensive and expensive. The costs of digitization must be met somehow, and subscriptions allow the large sums involved to be worked in to more modest institutional budgets. Indeed, the costs involved are so high that the academic sector, which usually makes its digital products available free online in exchange for public money, is largely priced out of this market.2 Instead, the pattern of granting one-off awards over fixed periods of time to projects with definite deliverables has produced, as Julia Thomas and Jerome McGann note, a host of [End Page 94] well-designed projects that all stand independently of each other.3 This, in turn, has encouraged research into creating networks that can bring together these projects, providing portals that can search across diverse contents, and preserving the data against the vagaries of institutional politics.4

One place where issues of ownership are focused is in the corporate battle between Microsoft and Google over their respective search engines. Google's controversial Google Book Search scanned the contents of books sourced from libraries and publishers in order to create an index from the OCR-generated text they produced. This index then becomes part of Google's project to 'organise the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful', providing access to the full text if the book is out of copyright, and to snippets of the text from search results if still in copyright.5 However, what this means in practice is 'universally accessible' through Google's search engine, and useful within the scope of their treatment of the work when digitised. Microsoft's response has been to set up a rival project in collaboration with the British Library, the University of Toronto, University of California, New York Public Library, American Veterinary College Library, Yale, and Cornell. The institutions are each responsible for providing a section of their holdings according to Microsoft's themes: the British Library, for instance, is responsible for 'English Literature' and it has used its own classification scheme to identify the material that this entails. Like Google, Microsoft are locking partner institutions into a license agreement that prevents them...