- Digital Archives, Avant-Garde Periodicals:An Introduction
The digitization of periodicals has changed periodical studies—perhaps even given "rise" to periodical studies.1 But how? By increasing access to periodicals. Over the last two decades, hundreds of periodicals have become available to anyone with an internet connection. Want to read the first issue of The Little Review (1914)? You no longer have to visit a major research library. You can visit a digital archive—the Modernist Journals Project. This increase in access has led to an increase in scholarship and to the transformation of a field—and to the periodical you are reading now.2
One could argue about the cause of this increase in access. Did the "cultural turn" in the humanities lead to a greater demand for periodicals, and thus to the proliferation of digital archives?3 Or did the preservation needs of libraries? Or the innovations of multinational corporations such as Adobe, Canon, Google? Or the interests of for-profit content providers such as ProQuest? (Access does not always mean accessibility: many periodicals are stored behind paywalls.) Whatever the cause (or causes), access is key to understanding the impact of digital archives on periodical studies.
Most scholars use digital archives as repositories of PDFs. (PDF stands for Portable Document Format.) Indeed, many scholars have created their own digital archives (or more accurately, caches) of PDFs on their hard drives—just in case online archives shut down or copyright law changes. (I have.) Digital archives, in this way, have become surrogates for libraries and personal research collections—with PDFs as surrogates for print periodicals. [End Page v]
Most scholars know that PDFs are not perfect surrogates. Convenience compensates for what is lost in fidelity and aura. (Anecdotal evidence suggests that scholars prefer PDFs to image viewers, despite improvements in image-viewing software in recent years.) PDFs are downloadable, modifiable, familiar. Text recognition software allows scholars to search PDFs for specific words. And most important: PDFs allow scholars (and everyone else) to bring scarce and fragile periodicals into their homes—and read them.
But digital archives are much more than repositories of PDFs. Illuminating this more is the aim of this special issue of the Journal of Modern Periodical Studies. How can digital archives facilitate research beyond providing access to surrogates? (A subtitle for the special issue might be "beyond the PDF.") How might digital archives be used more effectively? How might they be built more effectively? How were they built in the first place?
To address these questions and others, Clifford Wulfman and I invited scholars to use—and reflect on—one digital archive in particular: the Blue Mountain Project. The Blue Mountain Project is an open-access collection of digitized avant-garde art, literature, and music periodicals at Princeton University. Since its launch in 2013, Blue Mountain has made 1,389 issues of thirty-four periodicals in eleven languages available to scholars and the public-at-large. Wulfman and I invited scholars with expertise in the digital humanities and computer science to contribute, as well as scholars with expertise in periodical studies and the avant-garde. How, we asked, might Blue Mountain reveal new research questions? How might it be used and improved?
Why Blue Mountain? Two reasons—one biographical, one intellectual. Wulfman is the founder and director of the project; I am on its board of directors. Consequently, we could respond to questions and suggestions from contributors, and even customize specific features. Eventually, we hope to use this special issue to renovate Blue Mountain. The intellectual reason, however, is more relevant: a digital archive of specifically avant-garde periodicals—fully searchable and with robust metadata—is the ideal test case to investigate the potential of digital archives in general.
The avant-garde is a circumscribed field, assuming we identify "avant-garde" with what Peter Bürger called the "historical avant-garde," the cluster of early twentieth-century movements that included futurism, Dada, surrealism, and constructivism. But as this cluster makes clear, the avant-garde [End Page vi] outstrips the research capacities of any individual scholar. There are too many languages to learn, too many media to study. The periodicals digitized by Blue Mountain...