- What Has the Digital Meant to American Periodicals Scholarship?
What has digitization meant for periodical studies, and what might it mean in the future? We might first consider how the digital archive changes notions of access, both political and practical. James Mussell notes that “the conditions that permitted newspapers and periodicals” to become the central medium of discourse in the nineteenth century—“their seriality, abundance, ephemerality, diversity, heterogeneity—posed problems for those who wanted to access their contents” in print forms.1 The periodicals archive is vast and largely un-indexed. In ways so basic and fully transformative that we easily overlook them, digitization and its attendant technology, keyword-based searching, have already changed periodicals scholarship entirely, allowing researchers to easily identify topics of interest across swaths of newspapers, magazines, and related materials, and just as easily to incorporate those media as evidence for historical, literary, or other claims. As Ted Underwood reminds us, “Algorithmic mining of large electronic databases has been quietly central to the humanities for two decades. We call this practice ‘search,’ but ‘search’ is a deceptively modest name for a complex technology that has come to play an evidentiary role in scholarship.”2 Though other forms of computational analysis will certainly influence periodicals research in the near future, the most dramatic methodological shift has already happened.
Patrick Leary wrote more than a decade ago that “fortuitous electronic connections, and the information that circulates through them, are emerging as hallmarks of humanities scholarship in the digital age.”3 Given the diversity of material available in mass digital archives, such fortuitous connections are more likely to be drawn across media. Even Google Books includes a huge array of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century periodicals that were bound by libraries, bringing periodicals into the purview of all its users, whether they go there seeking periodicals or not. Such access, coupled with more academically oriented databases of historical newspapers and magazines, have meant that more scholars can and do cite periodicals today than did a few decades ago. More recently, Leary notes that “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” even for more “casual” users of digital archives.4 We might claim that digitization has rendered periodicals more tractable to humanistic argumentation, broadly conceived, than they once were.
We might also contend that this ubiquity of digital periodicals research has not been unequivocally positive. As Leary, Bob Nicholson, and many others have pointed out, access to digital periodical archives is unevenly distributed, with the largest collections sold by commercial providers beyond the means of [End Page 2] smaller institutions and independent scholars—and often closed to computational analysis beyond searching, even for scholars at subscribing institutions. Large-scale public collections, such as the Library of Congress’ Chronicling America newspaper archive, have brought welcome attention to certain varieties of periodicals. Chronicling America’s guidelines for state digitization programs ensure that digitized papers are spread geographically across each participating state. Such policies bring rural and small-city papers more often into scholars’ fields of vision, mitigating the dominance of urban papers in earlier periodicals scholarship.
At the same time, such collections risk tipping the scales of our attention in equally misleading ways. In his analysis of English-language Canadian dissertations, Ian Milligan thoroughly demonstrates that dissertations written in the “database age” draw more on newspaper content than those written before: “Newspapers readily accessible online are being used more frequently. They are also being used in a more sustained manner.”5 Secondly and perhaps more importantly, however, Milligan shows that recent dissertations draw ever more disproportionately on particular newspapers. While it’s perhaps unsurprising that digitized newspapers are cited more frequently than undigitized ones, Milligan demonstrates in precise, quantitative detail how quickly and dramatically the newspapers used in dissertations have skewed toward what is available online. Even as digitization has amplified the practical scope of historical periodicals research, allowing researchers to draw materials from across a variety of periodical sources, it has paradoxically narrowed the potential scope for such periodicals research for most scholars.
This narrowing effect is most troublesome...