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Tacking: Nineteenth-Century Print Culture and its Readers

  • Laurel Brake

…plus d’informations

  • Laurel Brake
    Birkbeck, University of London


Written at a time when print media are fast disappearing, this article analyses how the nineteenth-century press tackled its own problems of survival in the past, and how digitisation of print now accomplishes similar tasks of optimising readership, distribution, and longevity. Effective strategies never were and are not now plain sailing, to which my title refers. “Tacking” is a sailing term that has entered general usage, to mean a strategic action or series of actions intended to overcome barriers to attainment of a goal. In “Tacking,” I am calling attention to a basic characteristic of journalism of all periods, its sensitivity to conditions of the day and changing conditions—of production, markets, technology and advertising. Observe the impact on our contemporary press of the rise of electronic media and the shift of advertising away from print. Manifestations of sensitivity to its publics in the nineteenth century-press took the form of multiple formats, timing of editions, and a variety of content—letterpress and commercial—tacking strategies now augmented by ingenious properties of digitisation, enabling fast and deep interrogation of historical print media as well as potentially greater access to it. This is clearly “added value.” For historical media, digitisation may be viewed as its passport into the future

I will analyse the current flurry of remediation of the nineteenth-century press in the last five years, including the roles of public and private platforms of delivery and their relation to access. Does electronic publication offer other forms of nineteenth-century print such as volumes of literature benefits similar to those of print journalism? I will finally assess the impact of the digitisation of nineteenth-century journalism and digitisation more generally on Victorian studies and its interaction with its publics.

1. Nineteenth-century strategies of survival and dissemination

We have long lived in an age where “text” is defined as verbal, a predilection fostered more than once in the last century by the isolation of “text” in the New Criticism as well as by the linguistic turn in literary criticism of the last quarter century. Understandably, we have often lost sight of the material text, the definition of which is far more inclusive than letterpress, including as it may graphics, illustration, advertisements, publisher, seriality, edition, price and “get-up” such as binding, paper and size. And while sales figures of texts are sometimes adduced without much explanation as “obvious” statistics to indicate popularity or obscurity, they often pertain to early if not first editions, and fail to take account of editions over time and second-hand sales, as William St Clair’s recent study The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (2004) has argued. Although such statistics are offered as context, they may instead further obfuscate the complexity of how print survives in culture.

The minimalist view of “text,” then, has stripped print objects of their visible ties to the cultures and conditions of which they are part, and of all indications of their appeal to readers other than the aesthetics of “content.” The impact of the definition of “text” as largely verbal may be seen in the case of George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Current readers of a print edition of her study of provincial life purchase, borrow or read online a stout volume of some 700 pages, the format of which reinforces the serious and “classic” reputation of this novel, irrespective of the particular publisher and whether it includes “notes.” Readers in 1871-72 were presented at first with a more accessible format, of serialised, free-standing and moderately priced parts with pale green covers that featured a line-drawing making up a rural bower (http://www.earlywomenmasters.net/art/middlemarch.html); scheduled to appear at sedate intervals of two months, its eight short “books” minimised the threat of the lengthy novel, managing reading by releasing narrative parcels over time. The address to the reader of the 1871-72 serialisation, then, suggests a lighter, more feminised narrative of domestic, and even obscure, provincial life. A posture of understatement that George Eliot and her publisher may have promulgated to maximise sales, it reassures readers that the story is approachable and accessible. The fat volume, however, in the Penguin or Oxford University Press “library” primarily recommends itself (or not) to generations of students on whose reading lists Middlemarch appears. Two points emerge from this example: format is dually significant, in its influence on meaning and in its articulation of market niche and accessibility.

I will focus on two elements of nineteenth-century format that tie print to its publics: advertising and multiple editions. Most print items in the nineteenth century were a combination of letterpress and advertising. This is true not only of periodicals and newspapers, the commercial content of which is often identified to imply its implication in the market and its inferiority on this count to Literature. While this was a new departure for George Eliot, Dickens and Thackeray commonly launched their fiction in part-issue formats which, like books, were either “wrapped” in “Advertisers” front and back (most common in serial formats), or carried advertisements about the current “list” of their publisher, with titles, prices, and snippets of reviews at the end of the letterpress. Weekly, monthly, quarterly and annual periodicals similarly included wrappers or dedicated advertising pages. All of these media—part issue, serials, and books that carry commercial matter to a lesser or greater extent—are the routine formats for the publication of a wide range of disciplines of the day, including literature, history, social science, science, religion, philosophy, art, music, and criticism of all types.

My point about the presence of advertisements in nineteenth-century print is primarily that ads insert elements of time and contingency into forms of text that at once internalise contemporaneity in their discourse and simultaneously make a claim for durability through their formats and genres (history, fiction, sermon, etc). In particular, advertisement time is one of currency and news, elements that the longstanding ethos of isolating text obscures. That is, the news element of advertisements ties the verbal text that ads wrap to current readers, and even to the specific geographical locations from which the ads emanate, as may be seen in various forms of advertisements in diverse types of media.

Figure 1

The City Jackdaw 2 April 1880, 3

The City Jackdaw 2 April 1880, 3

-> Voir la liste des figures

Advertising wrappers linked not only the print object to the real world, keeping readers informed about the latest products and offers, but they also connected the instalment to the products, for example reminding us in part-issues of Thackeray’s The Newcomes, with their display advertisements for travelling gear such as maps and raincoats, that such literature was at this time sold at numerous newsagents in train stations, where a traveller might also borrow it from a circulating library branch. Travel in that novel, then, could be said to be illustrated by the display adverts in the Advertiser, or at least to reference them when read in those particular part-issues. [1] Ads, along with popularising illustrations, attractive cover and format designs appropriate to the target market niche for each edition, differently priced editions, and serialisation before and after book publication are designed to produce sufficient sales across diverse markets, from the circulating library and other purchasing groups to relatively poor or geographically isolated individual readers. I say “designed” but, although any nineteenth-century publisher would recognise similar strategies in their own business, these practices were largely institutionalised and normalised, part of the always developing book trade or press industry, rather than the product of individual design. Sight of such “tacking” practices may be found in a trade journal such as the Publishers’ Circular (www.ncse.ac.uk) or in the workings of a mid-century institution such as Magazine Day (see the Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Journalism, or DNCJ)

And although nineteenth-century newspapers, with their visible and constitutive dates, their high proportion of news content, and their desire for as much advertising as they can attract, may appear necessarily ephemeral, they use similar means—advertisements, different editions over time, and graphics—to guarantee future as well as immediate sales; they honed careful strategies of both sustainable periodicity in the short term and survival over time of issues and runs by locking their product into social institutions. Newspapers are well known for multiple editions, that is the release over time on a single date of different versions of the issue. A plethora of editions were created to accommodate what we now call “breaking news,” when remaining timely with the news in a period of “hot type” required some resetting and re-printing; editions were also timed to respond to surges in the market: first or morning editions and “late” editions supplied commuters to and from work, and outside London special editions appeared on market day. Classes of readers were catered for, with “Final [stock market] prices” and Saturday “racing editions,” while “football editions” mirrored match schedules. Other elements of newspaper contents were calculated in the short term to attract a broad constituency of readers. These were accommodated easily in the miscellany format of their content which, although narrower than the press of the last fifty years, nevertheless ranged across foreign and domestic news, law and court reports (often sensational), verbatim parliamentary reports, lively letters to the editors, opinionated (and often party political) leaders, gossip, “columns,” sport, puzzles and competitions, and reviews (as well as advertisements) of theatre, music events and books. Many weekly papers included serial fiction (Law 2004).

However, although demonstrably and firmly linked to specific dates, political parties, and local as well as national advertising, newspapers like other serials made a concerted effort to survive beyond the single issue. The majority of serials in general—from daily to quarterly—were additionally issued by their publishers in volume format, at least annually, and sometimes more frequently. That is, each “number” or “issue” was part of a larger notional “volume,” which was published physically in a bound format, for sale to public institutions such as libraries or clubs and to those with private libraries; additionally, individual numbers could be saved by readers to bind privately in “boards” or covers purchased from the publisher or in privately commissioned covers customised to match the binding of individual libraries. Thus many libraries in Britain and even abroad possess bound volumes of The Times, which helps explain why, until recent digitisation of a range of titles, it tended to be the single source of information quoted about daily events.

So, serial publishers, like those of books, perpetuated their print objects over time in different formats for different markets, with the proviso that the enriched news and information contents of daily newspapers made the form of longevity they sought more exclusively aimed at sustainable libraries rather than individual sales. However, it is true that many weeklies were also gathered together and issued by their publishers as monthlies, often aimed at distribution to more middle-class readers [2] or distant readers (eg. abroad), while some titles appeared half-yearly in volume form at a lower price per volume, making them accessible to individuals and libraries alike. Many titles issued numbers for the Christmas market, either special Gift Annuals or Almanacks, additional to their regular issues or bolted on to their November or December numbers, the size of which often swelled with advertising. Splendid examples include the Publishers’ Circular (www.ncse.ac.uk) or Dickens’s Household Words. By these strategies, the nineteenth-century press systematically undermined ephemerality.

As volumes are overwhelmingly the format in which serials survive and have been accessed by most scholars, it is worth noting that their publishers were as alert to this new market for their now “historical” title as they had been to the contemporary market at point of issue, and they tailored the contents of the volumes to address their new audience of newspaper reporters, historians, and other readers. Volumes are another form of multiple editions. First of all, publishers provided new, additional materials for the volume format, such as a title page for the aggregated issues with volume pagination and often a frontispiece, and a Table of Contents/Index for the entire volume, which might be organised in two distinct ways: according to the succession of articles in individual issues, thus chronologically in the order in which they had appeared, preserving the visibility of individual issues, or alphabetically, which obscures the definition of issues. Any such Indexes or detailed Tables of Contents that survive usage and binding were extremely helpful in locating material before the finding tools of the Wellesley Index and computer searching appeared, although late nineteenth-century contemporaries could also search Palmer’s, Poole’s and Stead’s nineteenth-century indexes (all to be found in the ProQuest database C19), or reviews of serials contents that appeared often if irregularly over the century in various weeklies and, occasionally, monthlies. But the historical indexes were important then and remain so now; they can indicate to later readers such as ourselves historical search terms—such as “Statistics,” “Large Engraving,” “Small Engraving,” or “Anniversary Studies”—that provide insight into journal “departments” and epistemological categories at the time of publication.

If publishers enhanced volumes by providing additional material, both publishers and librarians withdrew issue contents from volumes as well; they tended to cut out the entire wrapper, the covers of individual issues, and any other advertising that could be cleanly stripped from the letterpress. Prices are the first casualty of the loss of covers, along with other information such as their colour, graphic design, and any names they carry for particular issues, changing details that are sometimes very difficult to ascertain over the run of a journal.

Figure 2

The City Jackdaw 2 April 1880. Cover

The City Jackdaw 2 April 1880. Cover

-> Voir la liste des figures

Moreover, editors often used the inside of covers to communicate editorial business and information to and from their readers. Here announcements of forthcoming issues, deadlines, advertising prices, and sometimes manifestos and answers to correspondents appeared. The withdrawal of the advertising pages often resulted in broken pagination; deleting the advertisements destroyed the evidence of the link between commerce and letterpress, and of the proportionality of advertising to other contents. It also denies current readers sight of the technology and layout of the advertisements, which in the case of new journalism techniques, for example, lead the way in tiered headlines, variety of fonts, elaborate and numerous illustration, and disruption of column divisions of the journal in question. The detailed contents of advertising can help later readers assess the market niche of the journal (as can the price), but also the products available at that time and place, with prices and manufacturers. From this adumbration of the cultural richness of what Girard Genette calls the “paratext” (Genette 1997), I hope readers can glean some indication of the links between nineteenth-century “real” readers of this enhanced “text” and contemporary culture, not to mention the integration of letterpress and paratext or of journals and culture.

2. Digital Platforms for Nineteenth-century Journalism: Access? To What? For Whom?

Victorian Studies is privileged in that the original resource is no longer in copyright in most cases and in most countries. This has meant that in this first surge of digital development of print resources, material from the long nineteenth century is the most modern text available free of copyright; it is ripe for remediation, and exploitation. So while digitisation in this case may not result in “universal” access, it normally achieves increased access. However, the distribution model differs from that for books in the past century, which targeted individuals as well as libraries. Now, the purchaser sought for these expensive digital products is corporate. Individuals only have access through membership in the community of an institutional purchaser. This may include public libraries, but just as often in this period of recession, it does not. The ethics of access, then, are problematic, and current practice may exclude whole sectors of the wider public, including the schools. The current strategy needs to be improved to provide for wider access to public sector institutions as well as individuals.

Commercial and academic models for production of electronic platforms for the press abound, with an increasing number of public-private partnerships. But some products remain within their respective sectors; Gale Cengage and ProQuest, for example, both publish generous numbers of nineteenth-century titles in full-text facsimile copies, respectively Nineteenth-Century UK Periodicals (Gale Cengage), and British Periodicals and American Periodicals (ProQuest). While the Cengage platform for periodicals is freestanding, it is designed as a succession of parts, with each tranche released serially, giving libraries and consortia the opportunity to opt for single releases. The ProQuest clusters of British and American periodicals are each available separately, but additionally they sit on a platform of other nineteenth-century databases (called C19), creating a varied and rich context within which they can be searched. Despite the different packaging of these Gale Cengage and ProQuest serial databases, they resemble some aggregate reference publishing, in that they are publisher led, if in a new medium. The publisher procures access to paper or microfilm resources, digitises them, designs and constructs the database, and distributes and markets it. While publishers may consult the academic community and hire advisers, editors and contributors, publishers brand these products as their own, rather than attach them to the names of their editors and contributors.

At the same time, many nineteenth-century databases, including some in which Gale and ProQuest are involved, are the product of complicated and interlocking partnerships between the public and private sectors. Gale has worked closely with the British Library on 19C British Library Newspapers, and ProQuest on the online edition of DNCJ. In this latter combination of commercial publishers and authors/public institutions, the twenty-first century is similar to nineteenth-century production models in the journalism industry, which were networks of newsagents/bookshops, distributors, publishers, printers, editors, illustrators/engravers and author/journalists.

Digital production in which scholars are lead participants typically involves editor/writers in printer-related activities such as compositing/setting, layout, and design, while it retains a separate technical dimension carried out by experts as skilled as printers in the nineteenth-century model. The “translation” of manuscript/typescript into digital representation involves “markup” at the very least, which editor/writers can learn, but it also invites the creation/adaptation of computing functions, of which searching, number crunching and data mining are familiar if nevertheless formidable examples; in this case, the design of the database system, and envisaging and maximising the potential of the project, are as complex and arcane as the architect/engineer’s design of an elegant bridge. This element of the task draws attention to the scope of the operation, which suggests that a new term, “remediation” (Bolter and Grusin 1999) rather than “translation” or “representation” is appropriate. This process is interdisciplinary within the academic world, requiring those in the arts and those in computing to venture into each others’ disciplines, to be willing to communicate, and to work effectively with one another.

The production of print journalism digitally is not only likely to present problems in attempting to “mirror” historical media, but also to make writer/producers immediately see characteristics of print that we have largely normalised to the point of invisibility, such as variations of journal structures, the unit of the page as a reading area, page turning, portability, independence of electric power at the point of consumption, size and pagination of issues, and graphic design. These are defamiliarized by the process of digitisation and redefined as media specific, characteristics of a certain type of knowledge dissemination involving print on paper. Indeed, in many respects some digital publication at present is caught in a transitional moment, attempting to recreate print on paper but on the screen, much as some early printing mirrored manuscripts.

3. Collaborative Work and Project Management: Production, Distribution, and Sustainability

There is a further, related alteration in the individual academic’s experience of “publishing” remediated material on a digital platform. For many scholars in the humanities, the creation/production of digital projects involves a shift from individual to collaborative work, involving the acquisition of new technical and project management skills. As we become publishers as well as editors, such academics learn to work in ways that overlap with research structures of social science and science, which routinely involve collaborative work, project management, and partnership with industry and/or public sector bodies. My experience as Principal Investigator in a three-year academic research project (Nineteenth Century Serials Edition, or ncse; www.ncse.ac.uk) publicly funded by a UK Research Council, the ARHC (Arts and Humanities Research Council), involved “all of the above.” It demanded a great deal of learning, and immediate involvement with sectors of the economic and research communities with whom I had never before worked. These included a diverse group of institutions: the British Library, which sourced most of the journals; a cutting edge department of King’s College London in Computing and the Humanities (CCH), and a private software firm, Olive, that was located in Israel. This involvement of an international labour force in the production of digital projects apparently emanating from the UK is typical of many digital databases and resources rather than unique to ncse. The digital industry is global, and whether the mode of maximising the accuracy of the OCR (optical character recognition) “behind” the facsimile pages is sophisticated automatic scanning of original nineteenth-century resources (the ncse route with Olive) or keying in by hand (a British Library route), there is often better and cheaper expertise abroad. This project, initially conceived as an academic project whose main task had been to produce an electronic scholarly edition of a selection of historical press titles, was to take us into the national research community and the global publishing industry.

The internal structures of the research team and of the wider project team were similarly diverse. The academics from English departments and CCH on the original ncse proposal were to be assisted by 1.5 Postdoctorate Research Assistants. We ended up with an historian of science with impressive computer knowledge and an English Literature graduate with expertise in periodicals. And despite this interdisciplinarity of our research team, the reach of the press and of Victorian studies stretched our collective knowledge to the utmost.

Project management was a significant challenge for all of us. While the breadth of the wider partnership was negotiated monthly in project team meetings, and weekly in research team meetings, the involvement of people whose organisations, priorities, and work patterns differed markedly from each other meant that definitions of tasks, rates of progress, the scope of the research, and the project plan were constantly reviewed. Working on a fixed budget against a firm deadline for an ambitious outcome involved juggling of resources over time, and frequent re-assessment of strategies to accomplish the project’s aims. Particularly contentious was the definition of the breadth of the consumer public we envisaged.

As the project was funded by a Research Council of the Higher Education sector, an important issue for us was the breadth of the user community we were targeting. While it would certainly include scholars, should we aim exclusively at that community? Such a project would differ from one geared to a larger public. We opted for a model that could cater to multiple groups of users simultaneously, but we also kept our scholarly commitment to building a resource that would consist of an experimental reference site for the ongoing discussion about the nature of nineteenth-century serials and how they are best represented. These two aims required oppositional qualities: simplicity of access and interface, immediately graspable by general users from the adult public to school children, and complexity of representation, which took account of the incongruities of periodical formats. While we managed this on the whole, what remains is to develop exemplary topics and platforms for specific user groups, such as schools, to demonstrate how ncse can function in specific learning environments. Customising resources for varied user communities requires additional and specialist skills, and funding.

If this development of the resource beckons with respect to widening access to Victorian materials, a larger constituency may also foster sustainability, which is a crucial and unresolved issue associated with electronic platforms. The speed of changing digital technology endangers their survival unless they are routinely upgraded. Justification of such expenditure is directly related to breadth and frequency of use. This brings us back to print. Digitisation of nineteenth-century materials has immense potential for opening up the rich diversity of these preserved resources to a geographically and demographically dispersed group of users, but it is just as important to retain the print archive for digitised resources—as the most durable form of the resource—as it is for those print titles which remain undigitised. Virtual representation of print objects is not the same as the objects, not only because the paper issues or bound volumes are the durable “originals,” but also because the medium is different. It is important now for users to have access to characteristics of the material book or serial; this will become increasingly important in future, when users may have little firsthand experience of books, the format of which may itself become one of the key markers of nineteenth-century culture.

Working on ncse widened our understanding from an initial, disciplines-based reading of serial texts from the perspectives of English and History to a reading alert to the journalism industry, collecting/preservation, and the history of libraries. This altered view in itself has potential for widening the user community of such a resource to those interested in the history of communication, media history, and the history of libraries. Our shift in understanding was first prompted by detailed inspection of the bound copies of our titles, which were found to include unforeseen multiple editions of our two newspapers: the Northern Star and the Leader published more than one edition per day. We also observed from our shelf checks variable practices in the historical binding of the multiple editions, which were not consistently bound chronologically. The results of these initial inspections were significant: in the first case, the inclusion of multiple editions in the database increased its size by 200 percent, involving renegotiations, on a fixed budget, with three of our partners. In the second case, it made it difficult to ascertain the order of editions—for example, in the case of the Leader, which was Town and which was Country, and we ended up by ordering them arbitrarily.

This last problem was only one of many aspects of the structure of serial issues and runs that digitisation presented, and that we had to resolve as editors and computer publishers/designers in our remediation of the nineteenth-century resource as it has survived in particular copies. One option we considered in detail, but eventually did not adopt due to the generosity of the software firm, was to retain our original projected pagination of 30,000 pages by a representative (if drastic) selection from our titles which we named the “Core.” One of its few advantages was that the principles of selection for the Core might have made it more immediately applicable to school use, but given the opportunity afforded to us by our partners to process the larger corpus, it was finally what our academic users would find most palatable that made us opt for the larger database, despite the curtailment of metadata we would then be able to manage. This prioritisation of a particular (academic) user group was a direct consequence of the nature of our Higher Education funding body and our participation in the ethos of that user group, but it was a decision in the end all about the definition and interests of users. While we as researchers steeped in serialisation were tempted to hold out for complex, multi-level metadata, we all agreed that lighter processing of the entire resource was of greater benefit to all members of the academic community, from undergraduates to research students. We also had to acknowledge that the complexity of our model of serial formats was difficult to attain through automatic processing of a massive resource, such as serial runs. The interest of users, the strengths and limits of technology, and our paper-based concepts were all at play here.

This time-consuming detour was part of the deliberative process which we decided to document on the ncse website in more than one section in order to make clear to anyone interested how mediated digital publication is: in the Editorial Commentary, the chronology, and in academic papers by individual researchers. The passage of time alone will make this only too clear, whereby the life of projects is linked intimately with the life of quickly changing technology, so that the digital platform of ncse may become inaccessible, despite TEI and xml, within a decade; they protect the text but nothing else, including the metadata. Digital production, then, has brought those of us in the humanities right up against the media of communication that the normalisation of print has caused us to lose sight of, making us alert not only to our current situation, but also to the paper and print characterising the production of nineteenth-century serials. This heightened consciousness of the media of nineteenth-century texts directs us to Friedrich Kittler’s notion of the material media characteristics and networks of all discourse (Kittler, Discourse Networks and Gramophone).

Digital platforms for distribution and consumption are similar to digital production modes in their variation from print, and related directly, if not simply, to those modes of production that often involve public/private partnerships. At the moment, the cost of production of digital platforms that aggregate resources has resulted in the restriction of distribution by many publishers of digital resources to a far narrower group of consumers than their nineteenth-century counterparts. The two instruments of restriction currently deployed—sales to corporate purchasers alone, and pricing—have resulted in the UK in the formation of public consortia such as the JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee; http://www.jisc.ac.uk/), which adopts selected electronic resources and commissions others, and makes them available free or at subsidised rates to institutions in UK Higher Education. Some database collections of aggregated titles from Gale Cengage, ProQuest, and JStor are available free to individuals within higher education through this route.

However, this is not the entire story of how digital resources reach various categories of users free: looking back at the production end for a moment, by teaming up with private sector publishers for purposes of distribution and site maintenance, many research projects emanating from public institutions not only benefit from the expertise/services of private sector digital publishers (and any fees charged to other users), but they also secure free access to the digitised resource for their own institution’s readers and sponsoring bodies. This is the model for British Library Nineteenth-Century Newspapers (with Gale Cengage) and Google’s digitisation agreement with the Bodleian Library, for example.

Once distribution is launched, site maintenance is not only expensive and demands regular attention, but it is necessary for the duration of the project. Unlike publishers of print on paper, who can rely on research libraries for preservation and do not have to keep titles in print to ensure durability, digital publishers may be both the publishers and libraries of their list, an extremely long term and demanding investment. It is also a worrying nexus for scholars, as durability is not necessarily compatible with profit for firms in the private sector, although digital publishers such as ProQuest have been insistent on creating “Durable urls” intended to brook the dangers of technological change. Like making a film, the process of the publication of nineteenth-century materials online is so complex and so costly that a broad spectrum of creators and distributors—studio/publisher, backers, authors, directors, editors, and actors—is necessary, and the screenplay or “resource” is not only multi-authored and liable to change, but is also open to a wide range of presentation/interpretation, ensuring that the film/resource does not resemble the book. Nor is the nineteenth-century digital journal the same as the single issue (often unseen and unavailable) or even the volume. The change of medium changes the artefact.

The commercial distribution model is analogous to the prevailing fragmentation of the distribution of print that is governed by copyright of book publication. It means that the global capacity of the internet is undermined, and that different fees apply in different geographical locations. Publishing digitally does not necessarily mean increased access; it may lead to very restricted circulation indeed, from a fee unaffordable by all but a few. In that case, at the current time, conventional book publication at a reasonable price may result in more successful distribution and circulation. There is one further link in the chain of distribution that I haven’t yet mentioned, and that is differential access by consumers to the hardware and the internet. This is geographically determined: a smaller proportion of the population in developing countries is likely to have regular access to computers and the internet than in developed countries due to limited communication infrastructure, and access is economically based in that it is restricted by the price of hardware in all societies.

Current publishing and distribution models have provoked reaction in the UK and the US. Where higher education institutions are required to pay high fees to commercial aggregators for access to material that their staff help to produce, some academics, libraries, and aggregators such as Google have attempted to undermine this regime, and to explore free circulation to users of digitised material out of copyright. In the event, these schemes, which seemed to promise free universal access to web users, have proved far more variegated and problematic than envisaged. At their best, they have resulted in institutions such as Harvard, Yale, and Michigan opening their collections to Google, who distribute texts or portions of texts free on Google Books.

However, not so widely understood is that Google Books is not a single or uniform resource, but a database that radically differs according to the geographical location of the national platforms, mirroring copyright law. Google Books in the US has a far higher incidence of titles and complete texts than the database under the same entity of “Google Books” in the UK, and presumably elsewhere. Google’s arrangements with other institutions such as the Bodleian Library, which received wide publicity when their digitisation partnership was first announced five years ago, do not permit free access to users outside the University, or indeed outside the walls of the Library itself. Moreover, one of the primary sources of Google’s overall income is advertising, whereby commercial organisations pay for effective management of the electronic network for distribution of information that Google has developed so successfully.

The point here is not to critique Google, but to acknowledge that digitisation/printing, effective distribution, publicity, sales, and sustainability are expensive processes, which are managed differently in print culture, where normally the consumer pays at the point of purchase. To render visible the advertising and financial structures of electronic publishing should make us more alert to the parallel structures of print, and specifically to those in the nineteenth century. In both periods, the production and circulation of media are inextricably associated with commerce, whether it is recognised or not. Until very recently indeed, the notion of free access to print at the point of use was unfamiliar. Even in broadcast media, there was licensing (the BBC), subscription (NPR), or advertising (commercial TV). The singed wings of the Google vision to shift historic print culture into the new model offers a cautionary insight into the mires of publishing. Its complex history, its current institutions, its laws, and the economic base of the industry mean that now, at the very beginning of the electronic revolution, extant conditions seriously impinge on the transformation of old media into the new.

Other sources of free access to users may be projects funded by publicly funded research councils; in the case of ncse, free distribution and access were a condition of the grant at that time. Other stand-alone sites in the UK that include nineteenth-century resources that have managed through research council or institutional support, product sales or advertising to launch sites free to users include DMVI (Database of Mid-Victorian Illustration; http://www.dmvi.cf.ac.uk/), SciPer (Science in the 19C Periodical; http://www.sciper.leeds.ac.uk/), and CartoonHub (http://library.kent.ac.uk/cartoons/). An interesting variation on these business models is the developing project of Dickens Journals Online (DJO; http://www.buckingham.ac.uk/djo/) that relies partly on soliciting voluntary subscriptions like National Public Radio does in the United States, as well as corporate sponsors who might wish to invest in ‘Dickens.’ Lastly, and far more rare, are free hubs that aggregate a selection of websites which are searchable as a group, developed with the express intention of providing an alternative to commercial subscription sites. NINES (Networked Infrastructure for Nineteenth-century Electronic Scholarship; http://www.nines.org/) is one such ambitious, peer-reviewed site for nineteenth-century projects, while the Victorian Web is another, earlier example; both have academic origins. Motivated by similar reasoning, individual universities in the UK have set up institutional repositories (e.g., Birkbeck ePrints; http://eprints.bbk.ac.uk/) and invited their staff to deposit their papers and even books, pre- or post publication, to facilitate free circulation of knowledge. These sites currently appear in Google searches, and depending on the resources and expertise of IT teams in academics’ home institutions, such repositories might be used to “publish” nineteenth-century research and databases.

4. Web 2.0, User Participation and Transmission of Knowledge

We all are familiar with the principle of Wikis, whereby a body of information is built up by the free and uncensored [3] contributions of users. While Wikipedia is used by students as often as it is denounced by lecturers and teachers, it might be seen as a hyperbolic form of the free exchange of information argument that underpins the institutional repositories, the free, single resource websites, and the blogs, all of which publish material without peer review. That Wikipedia has recently decided to stem direct uploading of user input by a moderate element of editorial checking is perhaps its recognition of its extreme position on the spectrum of user participation. It is also notable that the gateways of academic journals that are peer reviewed are demonstrably not a guarantee that all articles published are good. Nor has peer review protected some rigorous scientific journals from publication of undetected plagiarism in peer-reviewed articles. Lecturers commonly “recommend” criticism and editions on Further Reading lists, but no two lists on a single subject might be the same. And clearly all material that has merited publication is not authoritative.

My point is that while unreliable knowledge may be circulated in Wikis, the web is not unique in publishing such material, definitions of which vary; nor is it alone in requiring its users to develop literacy skills to test and validate what is perpetrated as authoritative knowledge. Similarly, if we want the consumer base for users of Victorian studies websites to widen, we need to welcome the non-experts and their recourse to Wikipedia, and to encourage them to make useful contributions and comments based on evidence-based knowledge to Wiki sites and our websites in areas dedicated to user response; NINES has developed such a space. Other possibilities for interactive knowledge lie in the current movement towards accumulation by individual users of personal archives of their web searches with their comments—the My Library space, which might in future be commonly open to sharing, with accumulation of other users’ responses and deployment of the archived materials.

In its early years, the nineteenth-century press, which tended to be very short of staff at the time, often contained articles by “correspondents,” readers of the paper who also wrote for it. W. T Stead famously began writing for the Darlington Northern Echo on such a basis in early 1870, becoming the editor of the daily just over a year later in 1871. Letters pages are another format used in the nineteenth century for opening papers to reader participation, and these attracted not only vociferous correspondence but also many readers curious to read the latest letter from a disgruntled public figure. Today the letters pages remain in dailies and weeklies, and attract widespread reader interest. But the notion of the reader/correspondent is also still alive today. It is very interesting indeed that publishers of large aggregates of research materials such as JSTOR, in an effort to defray pre-publication costs of cleaning up OCR manually or automatically, have mooted the possibility of enlisting users to accomplish this task, incrementally, as they use the resource.


The sustainability of Victorian studies depends on its embrace of digitisation, notwithstanding the problems that the new media raise. This is for a number of reasons. First, the internet and electronic formats of reference works will be the first destination of users for knowledge transfer, and we must adapt to that. In the case of scholarly editions of single or collected works, it seems to me mandatory that they appear in a searchable format, and if possible in paper. The advantages of producing in one edition a reading text for students, with notes via links and an otherwise clean page, and a scholarly variorum text visible when required are evident. Moreover, collected editions which are increasingly difficult to publish and for libraries to purchase are more thinkable and do-able in electronic form; as long as there is a scholarly group to edit and distribute them, such digital editions might well extend to other than established and famous authors, who can guarantee to overcome the bottom line of publishers and their traditional customers, the libraries. Electronic scholarly editions offer real opportunities for the dissemination of works that are never likely to be accessible in print outside of research libraries in specific geographical locations. [4]

Secondly, nineteenth-century material is in the happy position of not being subject to the copyright prohibitions besetting more recent material in copyright. So, although the proportion of the resource digitised remains small, it represents more material than has ever before been potentially accessible globally, and it is growing as the contents of research libraries come online. If we consider the breadth of this interface, we can see that remediated nineteenth-century sources offer great potential for luring readers into the field, in order to engage with a) paper publications of what they have (only) seen on screen, b) the huge number of texts that have not been digitised and c) the historical medium of print on paper. Material characteristics of serials in paper formats, such as size (page, length, and thickness), paper quality, reading with entire pages to view, the opportunity to see different copies than those digitised, perhaps with additional contents such as covers, price and advertisers, and the experience of page turning the physical copy combine to produce a distinct ‘paper’ reading experience. Missing articles, pages or even whole issues plague digitised copies as well, which paper copies may provide. Living, as we are, when most paper copies are still available, having neither disintegrated into dust nor disappeared into “storage,” we need to grasp the opportunity to read them in tandem with our screen reading. And users and readers must remember that the number of serials in electronic form is a tiny proportion of those extant. It is arguable too that the electronic medium reduces text to “information” by privileging a narrow definition of contents with its emphasis on the searching function and the part, not the whole, while the perception of serials as such—their format, design, organisation, materials—is less visible and, without browsing, even lost.

Thirdly, digitisation is capable of both historical representation of nineteenth-century sources, in its facsimile images of print materials, and of powerful searching and data mining of the OCR “behind” the facsimiles. These dual characteristics possess real advantages over print.

In the rush to “search,” the value of the Browse function, whereby historical, facsimile images of Victorian texts are widely available digitally, must not be overlooked. Viewing digital text in this way is important in stimulating readers’ interest in historical materials through permitting access to a text’s immediate context synchronically, by viewing items in proximity to the “hit,” including graphics, position on the page, and articles in other journals of the day, as well as facilitating serendipitous research through page turning. At the same time, browsing gives users access to diachronic investigation through examination of issues, runs and volumes of the serial in which an item is located, or (in the case of books) various editions. Our choice in ncse to display the structure of journals in successive issues and volumes in a “folder tree” in the left pane, and to offer a series of thumbnail views of successive pages of issues, so that the position of an article on the page and in the issue are readily understood, is part of the project’s belief in and commitment to browsing as an important function of digital platforms for nineteenth-century resources.

The power and lure of searching are more understood. Searches by keyword, title, author, price, publisher, printer or date, or a combination of these, and the more nuanced searches possible with text mining across an aggregation of resources such as NINES, British Periodicals or the run of The Times are dependent on how well and imaginatively the software has equipped the website. Designed cleverly, search engines mean that the possibilities of research activity can radically change, and different types of research projects will result. Other characteristics of digitised text that attract the digitally literate are the flexibility of text, the power to copy and paste, and to import material directly into essays and articles, or to forward it to a friend or colleague. The capacity for the web to disseminate information about available resources is also a powerful asset, whether the information is the product of dedicated searching, or browsing on Ebay or Amazon and stumbling across quality information or thumbnails.

Lastly, the openness of electronic formats to the inclusion of images comprises a huge advantage over academic print publications, where the expense of colour images is still a powerful restraint on their inclusion in academic books in print. Professor Jerry McGann recognised this early, and his Blake and Rosetti archives (http://www.rossettiarchive.org/) are sumptuous examples of how websites may deploy and be enhanced by images; the ejournal 19 Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century (http://www.19.bbk.ac.uk/index.htm) is another instance of the effective inclusion of images in a scholarly context online. This capacity of electronic media to accommodate and disseminate images cheaply and easily is in significant concert with the image-based character of screen technology on the TV, computer or mobile phone. It has created a generation of users whose literacy in “reading” screens is as great if not greater than their verbal literacy.

This foregrounding of the visual by digital media is a great opportunity for revival of interest in nineteenth-century print media by many who would never have occasion to access it otherwise. An increase in literacy, improvement in print technology and a gradual easing of taxes on paper, newspapers and advertising resulted in a profusion of nineteenth-century cheap journalism and popular literature. Their broad readership base, their variety of layout, display advertising, illustration, graphics and binding made the print object of the period a feast for visual consumption. Coupled with the capacity of the new media to control the timing of displays of information (cf Powerpoint presentations), to incorporate colour, sound, video and links, the possibilities for targeted dissemination of Victorian Studies material, both primary and secondary, on customised platforms to a variety of distinct publics are, to quote Matthew Arnold, “immense.” [5]

Parties annexes