- Teaching Nineteenth-Century Periodicals Using Digital Resources: Myths and Methods
Back in 2006, VPR published a special issue edited by Teresa Mangum that discussed how periodicals might be studied in university classrooms.1 The essays described innovative and exciting courses that engaged with different aspects of the nineteenth-century press. Each, in its own way, had to engage with a central methodological difficulty: how to provide access to newspapers and periodicals for students. Some managed with photocopies, others with trips to special collections in the library, and many made use of what digital resources were available. Now, with the publication of resources such as Gale Cengage's 19th Century UK Periodicals (2007), Gale Cengage and the British Library's British Newspapers 1800-1900 (2007) (also known as 19th Century British Library Newspapers), Pro-Quest's Historical Newspapers (2001-) and British Periodicals (2007), and Brightsolild's British Newspaper Archive (2011-), as well as the material republished in Google Books (2001-) and the Internet Archive (1996), this key methodological difficulty has largely been overcome. And, as textual transcripts provide access to page images through a searchable index, it has been overcome in such a way that exerts significant bibliographical control over what has long been acknowledged as a recalcitrant and complex print archive.
This is not to argue that problems regarding access have been solved. The lack of political will for publicly-funded and accessible digitization programs (in England at least) has meant that the bulk of nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals have been published by commercial publishers as packages to be sold to (predominantly North American) academic institutions. In some cases, the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), under their JISC Collections scheme, has underwritten the cost of subscriptions for British universities, but access elsewhere depends on the wealth of the institution and the ability of academics to make the case [End Page 201] for the expense. Yet for scholars within subscribing institutions, there has been a fundamental transformation in the terms of access to nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals. This transformation has the potential to return the press to its central place in studies of nineteenth-century culture, but only through the introduction of a new set of mediating forms. Working with periodicals always involves an engagement with mediation as lost print forms are reconstructed from traces in the surviving print archive. When we use digital resources, we introduce a further dimension to this familiar methodological consideration. The gains from using digital resources are so significant that nobody working within nineteenth-century studies can afford to ignore them. My argument here is that both students and scholars must be equipped to understand the constitution of this new digital representation of nineteenth-century print culture.
Some Myths about Digital Scholarship
The web, at the time of writing, is twenty-one years old—older than most of the undergraduate students on campus. Computers, of course, are much older, and computation has been both a method and object of study for as long as the modern university has existed. The digital humanities traces its roots back to Father Busa's work in the 1940s, and computational methods have long been employed in a number of humanities disciplines.2 Neither digital scholarship, then, nor digital culture, can really be approached as if they were still new. The rhetoric of novelty has political value, for both advocates and critics, but does not provide an intellectual framework through which to approach digital resources. A better approach is to substitute novelty for difference, taking the digital on its own terms while embracing the implicit question, "different from what?" It is this methodological embrace of difference that underpins each of my responses to the four myths below.
1. The next generation knows what it is doing.
Marc Prensky's influential paper, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," from 2001, argued that young people, because they have been exposed to digital culture for most of their lives, are intrinsically different learners than those who adapted to it later in life.3 These "digital natives," according to Prensky, "think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors" and so require a learning environment and methodology specially attuned to their needs...