Studying Nineteenth Century Media: Marking the Shift from ‘Reader’ to ‘User’

Clare Horrocks, Liverpool John Moores University

The Nineteenth-Century Press in the Digital Age by James Mussell, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, vii + 232 pages, illustrated, £55 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-230-23553-3

In this much-awaited volume on the impact of the digital age on our study of the nineteenth century press, James Mussell is able to demonstrate how the traditional monograph no longer serves the professional needs of the academy (xi).  Identifying a new era for research he asserts that there are two specific sets of skills which the researcher of nineteenth century media must now acquire.  Firstly, a familiarity with the forms and genres of the periodical and newspaper and secondly, the ability to interrogate the resources that present them in digital form (5-6). In acquiring these skills, he argues, there needs to be a broader recognition of the necessity to become more active in how we study the nineteenth century press; becoming ‘users’ rather than merely ‘readers’.

Mussell is a leading expert in the field of digital humanities, co-editor of ncse (Nineteenth Century Serials Edition, launched 2008[i] (reviewed in detail in Chapter 3 “Editions and Archives”) and editor of JVC’s own “Digital Forum”. His vision of how changes in the digital age will affect the study of nineteenth century media makes this text an invaluable contribution to a relatively new series only launched in 2010 – Palgrave Studies in the History of the Media.  The series aims to promote research into the cultures of communication from the middle ages through to the present day, though so far it is the richness of nineteenth century media which has largely been examined.[ii] With such a resurgence of interest in how we study the nineteenth century press, Mussell’s book is a key text for reminding researchers that the plethora of digital resources and press facsimiles now emerging should not be taken for granted.  Rather, what is called for is a more critical approach to how we contextualise the press and understand the journey such resources have taken from artefact to digital object.  For all digital projects, whether commercial or academic, are editorial and therefore subject to specific methodological decisions, which affect their presentation and subsequent interpretation by users. Understanding this complex relationship affects our understanding of the past and subsequently how we are able to present it to our students.

The book is organised into four distinct chapters with an introduction and a conclusion.  With individual sub-headings per chapter, the text is clearly designed for ease of use, allowing readers to either read through the book or to dip in and out depending on their interest.  The scope of the book is ambitious in its breadth and this is evident from the distinct perspective of each chapter; the introduction neatly capturing the complexities of studying a subject that is at once historically distant from us but presented through a medium that is at the same time so immediate and current.  Chapter One, “From the Margins and for the Margins: Studying the Nineteenth-Century Press Today” provides an historical view on the context of production, arguing for the importance of how we understand a culture through its media. Whilst still acknowledging the impact that the digital repository has on how different forms of media are consumed, this particular chapter provides a useful introduction to the study of nineteenth century media for those who are perhaps less familiar with the subject.

In contrast, Chapter Two, “Bibliographic Codes and Visual Modes: The Role of the Visual on Page and Screen” provides a distinctively more specialised perspective, one informed by the more technical considerations of how digital resources are generated and distributed.  The chapter addresses not only the logistical and methodological problems of presenting visual material in digital resources, but questions how indeed the visual can be defined, making an argument for the whole of a text to be about visual presentation. For the “digitization of large tracts of nineteenth-century print allows us to reconnect with its visual appearance in ways that have not been possible since the nineteenth century” (71). The use of optical character recognition technologies (OCR) provides a series of codes that ensures what is studied is an image of a page rather than just a series of linguistic codes, Mussell argues. However, how metadata establishes the context for the image, provides a series of linguistic parameters which removes the article/issue under study from its original context, making it a distinct product of the digital age that reproduces it. This has clear implications for how the archives and repositories that house them are created, which is the subject of Chapter Three “Editions and Archives”, co-written with Suzanne Paylor who worked with Mussell on the aforementioned ncse project.

Written by two people who have direct experience in building a digital archive, Chapter Three provides yet another perspective on how to study the nineteenth century press in the digital age. Looking at some of the more practical considerations involved in editorial selection and production, it is a key introduction to the final chapter as one can see how the considerations about anthologising different examples of nineteenth century media could be adapted in the classroom. A distinction is made between those resources that merely collate material and those that attempt to build a more coherent narrative of production and consumption. They argue that “the archive provides a means of managing a set of disparate materials that are presented as if with a minimum of mediation; the edition attempts a faithful reproduction of the work, often conceiving of it in explicitly scholarly and textual terms” (124). The detailed analysis of ncse that follows provides one of the book’s few in-depth examples of how what has been discussed can be followed through from theory to practice.  This will no doubt serve as inspiration for many scholars looking at creating and generating their own digital resources in the future, whether for use in the classroom or for the wider academic community- though increasingly the distinction between the two seems to be becoming blurred as Chapter Four “Newspapers and Periodicals in Class” considers.

Chapter Four was the chapter that I personally was most keen to read, having avidly followed various scholars’ articles about their experiences of working with periodicals (hard copy and digital) in the classroom in JVC and Victorian Periodicals Review. However, I found this chapter was one of the most challenging to read as there was so much information to absorb with relatively few applied examples of how the theory could be put into practice.  Certainly there are sites where more practical approaches to teaching are already discussed, but given the distinct variety of perspectives offered by this book it would have been useful for the reader to be able to consider ways of implementing such approaches. For example, Mussell runs a fascinating blog “about the Victorians, the media and the digital humanities”.[iii] The site publishes various papers, chapters and talks produced from his research, but there is also a tab on “teaching”.  Here one finds he is the convenor of a fascinating course at the University of Birmingham entitled “Hacking the Book: Skills for the Digital Age”; the course outline is available to download and, when read in conjunction with this book, elucidates and puts into practice many of the principles discussed. Including such detail in Chapter Four would have been an extremely beneficial addition to an extremely thought provoking piece of work.  His final chapter seeks to consider the challenge of how to equip students with the requisite skills to study nineteenth century media, at the same time as stressing that “digital literacy is not a supplement to more traditional scholarly skills, but an essential complement that allows both students and scholars to use digital tools to do historical work” (169).  The syllabus for “Hacking the Book” suggests one way that this can be achieved in the classroom, demonstrating how students can not only use digital resources in their learning but also develop key skills that can be used elsewhere in digital culture.

Being one of the first texts to attempt to theorise the methodological implications of studying the nineteenth century press in the digital age, at times there is almost too much for the reader to reflect on.  Mussell is in the authoritative position of being a cultural historian, a period specialist, a pedagogical leader, a creator as well as a user of digital resources.  This range of knowledge is evident throughout the text, but without the space to fully explore this variety of perspectives, the reader can be left frustrated and wanting more.  The very interactive nature of the subject matter under review means that the book would have benefited from more specific working examples in places – the topics addressed in Chapter Four itself are worthy of a full book.  However, there can be no doubting the legacy that Mussell’s text will have in stirring debate and inspiring new perspectives on how we study nineteenth century media.  It is to be hoped that the questions left open by this particular book will soon be picked up by other scholars as we all strive to engage our students, seeking to foster new skills and facilitate their transition from ‘reader’ to ‘user’.

Clare Horrocks is a Senior Lecturer in Media, Culture, Communication at Liverpool John Moores University where she is the convenor of the Victorian Print and Popular Culture seminar series.  She has published widely on Punch and the Victorian Periodical Press, including an article with Gary Simons, “From Paris to Punch: William Makepeace Thackeray and a New Era in Social Satire”, in Victorians Journal (2011).  She has written for JVC’s Digital Forum and maintains a particular interest in the impact of digitization on teaching and learning practices.

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