Physical vs. Digital Periodicals

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Digital platforms make it hard to tell the size of the original thing–book, periodical, physical object. On a computer screen, everything seems the same–same quality, same size, same “feel.” Thinking about the size of the British Workman is an opportunity to think about some of the ways in which periodicals change when they are added to a digital or physical collection.

In their original form, nineteenth-century periodicals varied widely. Some were big. Some were small. Some had many pages. Some had few. The paper quality and feel varied–it could be smooth, rough, heavy, thin, shiny, matte, resilient, or fragile. For much of the century, paper was made of materials other than wood pulp, such as rags and grasses, giving it different physical and tactile properties. Printing processes sometimes left deep impressions in the paper. You can feel the shape of the letters on the surface. The age of the publications that have survived makes them fragile. They show signs of decay: stains, foxing,1Foxing is the brownish or rust-coloured spots and stains that can appear on antique paper. folds, and tears. In transforming paper to digital, these physical and sensory elements are lost or obscured.

In the case of the British Workman, the sheer size of the original publication is lost. Each single issue is big. Your arms stretch wide when holding it open to read the centre spread. The paper is matte and smooth. The ink of the engravings feels a bit rough under one’s fingers. The gilt on the thin edges of our “parlour edition” catches the light when several issues are stacked together. Viewed separately, however, it is almost impossible to detect the hint of colour on the thin edges. The British Workman that you see on the screen is not the same as a physical copy of the British Workman. It is important to be aware of the differences.

Thinking about the “size” of the British Workman is a chance to reflect on the ways in which periodical content accumulates and grows. Issues of publications like the British Workman were published according to a set schedule (daily, weekly, or in the case of the British Workman, monthly). These issues are then collected into larger sets, increasing the dimension of what we read and altering our relationship to the content.

Digital interfaces and editing make texts appear to be definitive–as though the periodical is this single text. The truth is Victorian periodicals were originally sold in different formats and at different price points: single issues, unbound volumes, bound volumes with covers ranging from cheap to expensive, library editions. Not every reader of the time experienced the publication in the same way. The British Workman asked readers to help build its audience base by buying and distributing copies among their colleagues, friends, employees, and communities. Cheap issues were produced for working-class readers and for middle-class Temperance supporters to distribute among the working classes. More expensive volumes, like the “parlour edition,” were marketed to middle-class readers on the basis of the magazine’s images or pictures rather than its prose content. The people who read the parlour edition may not have touched a separate monthly issue.  In the nineteenth century, therefore, there were different versions of the British Workman.

Just as periodicals varied in the nineteenth century, there are variations in copies of nineteenth-century periodicals that have survived in libraries and personal collections. Libraries and publishers bind their publications into volumes, shifting the unit of consideration from the single issue to multiple issues over a period of time. During the binding process, content that may have been considered extraneous and unimportant–covers, advertising, subscription forms, and supplements–was sometimes removed in the interest of saving shelf-space. Libraries use different bindings. They may choose to organise bound material by year, volume, or part of volume. In some cases, they may even combine more than one periodical in a single binding. Therefore, the British Workman that you find in one library may not be the same as the British Workman that you find at another.

The same is true with digital versions of nineteenth-century periodicals. The periodical on one digital platform may or may not be from the same source as the periodical on another platform. Sometimes it is difficult, or even impossible, to figure out what original source was used. You cannot necessarily tell if the original source was a single copy, a bound ‘library edition’ produced by the original publisher, a bound volume assembled by a library, a microfilm version of a single copy or a bound volume, or even a combination of the above. Even when the source is apparent, it may still be different than the copy held at another library or institution. Websites organise both content and the user’s experience differently. Some try to replicate the reading experience. Others break the publication into easily-searchable snippets to be read outside of their original context. Being aware of platform differences, both visible and invisible, helps ensure that you are a critical user of digital resources. At the same time, remember that digitisation does not eliminate the need or demand for original, paper copies. The paper copies scattered around the globe may contain vital information that was missing from the digitised version. They also contain the physical, sensory experience of the text–the touch of the paper and the feel of the ink–that cannot be communicated on a screen.

Above all, it is important to be conscious of the fact that only a very, very small proportion of all nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals have been digitised. The selection of content to be digitised is influenced by a variety of public, financial, institutional, and academic interests. As such, what you find online represents only a small proportion of the period’s content, creativity, ideas, and viewpoints. While digitised nineteenth-century periodicals and newspapers hold an amazing wealth of information, they represent one corner of one shelf in the massive library-full of content produced by the nineteenth-century press.


BLT19: AMH

Works Cited   [ + ]

1. Foxing is the brownish or rust-coloured spots and stains that can appear on antique paper.