- Remediating the Past:Doing “Periodical Studies” in the Digital Era
Every revolution in communication technology–from papyrus to the printing press to Twitter–is as much an opportunity to be drawn away from something as it is be drawn toward something. And yet, as we embrace technology’s gifts, we usually fail to consider what we’re giving up in the process.Michael Harris
The End of Absence
In his recent award-winning book, The End of Absence, Canadian journalist Michael Harris ponders the implications of the digital age from the perspective of the generation that has known life before and after the advent of the Internet, asking fundamental questions about what is lost in the world of constant connection. As I consider recent developments and debates in periodical research, it seems that a similar divide between the pre- and postdigital worlds has manifested itself. This is not a generational divide in the limited sense of age; instead, it is related to the formation of academic fields and the impact of the large-scale digitization of newspapers, [End Page 19] periodicals, and magazines on approaches to scholarship.1 Assessments of that impact vary depending not just on when but also on why one has come to these media. The archival materials, once difficult to access, now seem all too available, creating (with the aid of computational tools) a range of new opportunities for researchers and students. Methodological shifts are redefining what it means to “read” periodicals. “Distant reading” and studying the materialities of media represent significant departures from textual analysis, expanding the perspectives we apply to media in useful ways. At the same time, reading periodicals (closely or deeply) for their discursive and visual content—for how they may have generated meanings, for whom and why—remains central to research engaged in expanding historical and cultural fields.
Many issues raised in the wake of the digital revolution are not new at all, even if they seem more urgent or couched in new terminology. The very claims to disciplinary and methodological newness, while rhetorically effective, have contributed to obscuring earlier, yet highly relevant, scholarship. For all the promise of interdisciplinarity and collaboration, research communities often operate in discipline- and period-based silos. Rivaling the “vast and unwieldy” periodical archives is the equally daunting body of critical work that has accumulated over decades and continues to proliferate with every new book and special issue. Our roles and responsibilities as researchers and teachers are complicated as we (re)mediate the past, the archival and the critical heritage, in a postdigital world. How do we negotiate the expanding databases and the qualitative and quantitative methodological options while initiating newcomers along the way? In the following, I focus on some recent developments in the study of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century periodicals in order to look both back and forward, to argue for a longer-term perspective and transdisciplinary approach to the existing research, and for a more productive dialogue across the digital divide through methodological pluralism.
Periodical Studies as a Field
I have followed tendencies in newspaper and periodical research since my first forays into the field in the mid 1990s.2 I use field here as an umbrella [End Page 20] term for the study of the newspaper and periodical press more generally, encompassing the various disciplinary and period-defined groups who share an interest in early forms of serial publication. In many ways the term “field” is a misnomer, given how various the disciplinary communities and locations for this work are, including Victorian studies, American/Canadian studies, newspaper and periodical/media history, women’s history, communication/media studies, literary and modernist studies, rhetoric studies, journalism history, book history, cultural studies, to name the most obvious. Working at the intersection of some of these areas, I am continually struck by how much repetition and how little crossover there is, with a few notable exceptions, in spite of how similar are the objects of study. All of these constituencies, which share an interest in early forms of print media, have scholarly and professional associations (many of which meet annually), dedicated journals, books series, and web resources, generating enormous quantities of...