- London Letter:Researching the Historical Press, Now and Here
A decade ago, nineteenth-century serial runs were conspicuous candidates for digitization by enterprising publishers since they were the most recent historic titles available that were free of copyright restrictions. It was in this climate that “Googling the Victorians” appeared in spring 2005. As Patrick Leary reminds us, only two newspapers were then available online, the Scotsman and the Times Digital Archive (2003–). In their wake, a succession of ambitious digital projects ensued, from the Joint Information Systems Committee’s distribution of British Periodicals and Nineteenth-Century British Library Newspapers among British universities towards the beginning of that decade, to the arrival of the Illustrated London News and the British Newspaper Archive towards its end.
Now we are at the beginning of what appears to be a new phase in the United Kingdom. Late last year, Colindale, the British Library site in Hendon dedicated to newspapers and periodicals, closed and a new newspaper and media reading room, the Newsroom, opened in April in the main British Library site at St. Pancras. These events remind us that despite the World Wide Web, geographical location does still matter when researching the press. The notion of time, which formerly seemed exclusively attached to the historical object under scrutiny, now also signifies the moment in which the object, print or digital, is read. The software, the hardware, the location of the archive, the list of what is available, and the accruing conversation—all quickly change in an ongoing dynamic. So this is a view from London in the spring of 2015.
As “Googling” is augmented by “tweeting,” we move from searching for fixed and extant historical sources to investigating interactive contributions and exchanges around a topic, thus participating in ever-expanding, simultaneous networks of communication. That tweets are tit-bit-like fragments is mitigated by seamless links to a locus of other, more extensive sites [End Page 246] on Twitter that include visual art and sound. It is in this long moment of the co-presence of print and digital texts that researchers of the historic press online still “see” their virtual medium, unlike scholars researching historical media in the heyday of print, who were often blind to it.
While print seems to render the digital visible and vice versa, at the same time the perception of print formats and their properties is nudged towards the graveyard of the archaic. This includes book and periodical forms of bound, shaped, aggregated material appearing at fixed moments of dated time as single imprints or as serials published at regular intervals. This model of time, as an iteration of fixed moments, contrasts with the fluid continuities of conversation and networking in the virtual world. The fixed shape of aggregated text in the book or periodical gives way to the item found online—a sentence, news item, article, “hit,” or nugget of an idea—which is deracinated from its larger “bound” format and connected to a new context, an ongoing exchange in the present. Thus, in 2005 Patrick Leary could write of “inert material texts,” to which we probably all assented, impatiently imagining a time when the prodigious multiplication of digitized titles would release print from its prison of stasis and materiality. But the notion that serialized print was published in fixed time has been sufficiently challenged, giving way to a complex production and distribution model.1 Similarly, in this article I argue that materiality does not attach to print alone.
The idea that print is “inert” implies a binary opposite to which many of us have readily subscribed—the belief that digital texts “live” as the virtual and immaterial “presence” of historical print. The fact is that neither medium is what it seems: print is only inert with respect to particular types of research and notions of seriality, and consequently it is no more material than its virtual counterpart. While digital text produced through OCR fosters rapid searching across libraries of material, extant software interfaces make digital archives difficult to browse. Both media have material characteristics that shape medium-specific research.2
Indubitably, digital iterations of media have already opened up new approaches to research...