- Response:Search and Serendipity
When the idea first came up for a roundtable on the anniversary of the publication of “Googling the Victorians,” my first thought was, “Has it really been ten years? Already?” So much has happened in the world of digital-assisted research since that essay appeared: the Internet Archive, British Newspaper Archive, HathiTrust, Google Books, Gale Cengage databases, ProQuest collections, advances in text mining, and the explosion of social media. And yet I still feel that we are only at the beginning of a new era of discovery. Along with our readier access to the astonishingly vast and various printed heritage of the nineteenth century is coming a heightened awareness of how constrained and inadequate our understanding of many dimensions of Victorian life and thought has been. As Paul Fyfe and Bob Nicholson make clear, unexpected encounters with odd bits dredged up from the unplumbed depths of the newspaper and periodical press still have the power to startle, puzzle, and intrigue us. That keen sense of strangeness is one measure of how much we have yet to learn about the Victorians.
The ubiquity and ordinariness of the experiences recounted in “Googling the Victorians” reveal just how ingrained they have become among specialists and non-specialists alike. For many scholars, the availability of digitized facsimiles of nineteenth-century newspapers and magazines has been a convenience, not the focus of their work; they dip into such collections now and then to search for, say, a publication notice or an obituary, to gloss an allusion, or to fill out a footnote. Yet even these comparatively casual uses represent the beginning of an important shift in scholarly practice. Searching the newspaper collections for references to the people, ideas, publications, institutions, or events one is writing about is quickly becoming not merely an option but a necessity borne of the certain knowledge that if you do not take pains to make a careful search for these references and check your assertions against those references, someone else who is writing on the same subject—or, God forbid, someone who is reviewing [End Page 267] your book—will certainly do so. Family historians and local historians are likewise trawling for proper names, filling their files with information that they might not otherwise have found in a lifetime of research with printed sources or microfilmed surrogates. I strongly suspect that the cumulative effect of years of this kind of routine use of digitized newspapers and magazines—the tidal deposit of all of these bits of information, much of it hitherto undiscoverable, about the quotidian lives and beliefs of people in the nineteenth century—will wind up being the most impressive legacy of these collections, dwarfing the discoveries of even the most ambitious digital humanities projects. That accumulation is already having an enormous impact on the annotation of Victorian texts, the writing of Victorian biographies, and much else.
For students of the Victorian press itself, such abundance has nevertheless come with roadblocks to further progress. As Bob Nicholson notes, commercial collections, with all of their expense and their restrictions on sharing, have far overtaken smaller non-profit digital initiatives, although the latter continue to move forward in important ways. If I could change only one thing about the currently available nineteenth-century full-text digital collections from commercial publishers, it would be for them to follow the lead of the National Library of Australia’s Trove project by making the underlying, uncorrected text directly available to researchers, a form of access that would not only allow for crowd-sourcing of improvements in the accuracy of that text but would also hugely facilitate the kinds of scholarly sharing that Bob notes are crucial to our progress. Laurel Brake helpfully recounts how other barriers to accessing both printed originals and digital facsimiles have continued to bedevil the enterprise of historical and literary research. The bulky volumes of newspapers and magazines that remain in libraries have steadily migrated from open stacks to closed stacks and often to distant off-site storage. A great many of those titles remain entirely un-digitized, and many that have been digitized have been aggregated into expensive subscription-only collections that...