Ashley Marshall and Rob Hume, “The Joys, Possibilities, and Perils of the British Library’s Digital Burney Newspapers Collection.” PBSA, 104:1 (2010): 5-52.
At forty-seven pages Ashley Marshall and Rob Hume’s article offers a substantive assessment of this relatively recent electronic resource for early modern studies. Early on the authors argue that “[d]igital Burney is amazing, but exploiting it fully is going to demand some serious rethinking and reorientation in both our research and our teaching (6-7). Their claim that this tool “will change the way we conduct our business” (7) possesses much merit; fulfilling digital Burney’s promise, however, will depend on far broader scholarly access than currently exists. Equally important, scholars need to acquire a firm understanding of its possible uses, search capabilities, and limitations. While Marshall and Hume’s piece cannot assist in matters of accessibility (though it could serve as support for the tool’s purchase), their essay does advance our knowledge of how this tool might be employed and how its features and limitations can best be navigated.
The article is usefully divided into five sections. The first considers the difficulties surrounding the use of newspapers for literary research. The next two parts detail various scholarly and pedagogical uses of newspapers afforded by digital Burney. The fourth section, making up nineteen of the article’s total pages and accompanied by five reproduced screen shots, identifies the external and internal shortcomings of the resource. The final part offers conclusions.
I. Conceptual Barriers to the Utilization of Newspapers
Noting that newspapers make a rare appearance in scholarship and teaching, this section examines the basis for such neglect.
A key reason stems from the simple fact that newspapers were virtually unavailable in the US until 1978 when the Early English Newspapers microfilm series made its debut. Even then, however, the series did little to bolster the already scant interest in historical newspapers among scholars. (7)
The reign of New Criticism and the subsequent heyday of Theory strongly discouraged the use of material drawn from newspaper content. If newspapers were consulted, the information sought was typically confined to obituaries, book and play reviews, and advertisements for books and cultural performances. (8)
That early newspapers either lack organized sections, including headlines, or feature very basic divisions often prove initially daunting to users. Especially in papers published before the 1760s, the lack of source information, the unacknowledged lifting and repetition of content across titles, sparseness of details, and partisan leanings also have made these newspapers seem strange and have done little to encourage their use (8-9).
Often scholars do not possess the knowledge needed to extract and draw conclusions about the values contained in many of these papers. Scant information about the circulation and readership of newspapers hinders a scholar’s ability to “analyze their implied readership, ideology, or socio-political agendas” (10). A broad gap exists between the literature we study and teach and the information found in these newspapers (11).
II. Research Uses
The authors supply three extended examples of possible ways that digital Burney can assist researchers.
Book Prices: Newspaper advertisements afford us a rich opportunity to compile prices for books not otherwise available (11-12). To illustrate, the authors supply prices derived from digital Burney for satire and then offer various insights this list affords. For one, the list reveals that prices for this genre ranged widely from low to high; the affordability and greater number of lower priced titles intimate that “[t]hese works were intended to reach and influence readers” (16). Additional examples of the price information newspapers can offer include
Collected works were considerably more expensive to buy than if one purchased the individual titles when initially published.
Newspapers “can turn up major fluctuations in price over time” for a given title(16).
Information in newspapers can enable us to reconstruct marketing strategies; for example, some advertisements reveal attempts to reach multiple markets by offering several formats at different prices (16-17).
As the authors assert, knowledge about book prices matters because “[i]f we are going to understand the works we study and the world in which they were produced and read, then the clearer we can be on price and what it implies about audience, the better” (17).
Reception and Reputation: Noting that dissemination contributes to our understanding of the reception and reputation of writers and their works, Marshall and Hume also caution that information drawn from digital Burney searches for prices, reprintings, marketing strategies, commentary or allusions to authors, and the like has its limitations. For one, newspapers until the late eighteenth century offer little in the way of cultural commentary; second, searching for authors’ name can be problematic for numerous reasons ranging from false hits (e.g., “Pope” yields a huge number of results, but many do not refer to the author) to problems with OCR failing to return anywhere near the actual number (18). Still, such searches can provide interesting information and, in turn, questions about the rise and diminishing of an author’s visibility in the papers, the geographic parameters of that visibility, and the contemporary existence of associations or groupings of authors (19-20).
Study of Individuals: The Case of John Rich: In this example the authors illustrate ways in which Burney can augment and shift our understanding of understudied individuals through an examination of theatre owner and manager, John Rich. In addition to discussing how Burney yielded fresh information about Rich, Marshall and Hume also discuss briefly the specific, various searches performed to yield hits for John Rich; they close this case study with a cautionary example of how newspapers, while often providing new facts and leads, can also on occasion provide false or erroneous information.
III. Teaching Uses
The authors divide their discussion of how digital Burney might be used in the classroom into two sections, one dealing with eighteenth-century economics and the other with the century’s Weltanschauung. Marshall and Hume preface their two pedagogical uses with a warning that students will need much prior preparation before attempting to use the resource. This preparation includes not only assistance with the intricacies and peculiarities of searching digital Burney but also with working with historical primary sources, especially sources as newspapers (24).
Economic Issues and the Value of Money: While the research section focused on book prices and dissemination, here the focus is broadened to using Burney to show “students … how things looked to eighteenth-century people” in terms of money–“a much neglected subject” (24). While we can simply tell students today’s monetary equivalents for sums of money mentioned in eighteenth-century literary works, the authors make the salient point that “hearing is not the same as comprehending” (26). What the authors recommend is having students search the prices of everyday items found in newspaper advertisements and calculate their modern monetary equivalents. As they note, their findings can radically shift our understanding about the economic references found in the literature being study and, in turn, carry implications that extend beyond the works.
Seeing the World through Eighteenth-Century Eyes: Near the end of this section, Marshall and Hume underscore that what they have been proposing means fundamentally “altering the way we teach” rather than merely supplementing our current methods (30). The crux of this shift entails replacing secondary with primary sources as the means by which students learn to “see[ ] the world through eighteenth-century eyes.” Among the suggested assignments is a rhetorical or ideological critique of a newspaper title during a set time or a comparative variation in which several titles are examined (27). Using ECCO as well as Burney, another possible assignment would have students explore an event or topical reference; commentary on Dr. Sacheverell’s trial, the 1745 Jacobite invasion, the 1730 trial of Colonel Francis Charteris for rape, the American war (as opposed to “Revolution”), or reviews of theatre performances represent just a few of the examples they offer (27-29). Yet another use involves investigating the reception of works based on newspaper commentary (29). Noting that the nature of the course—a survey will differ considerably from an honors seminar—will affect the assignment(s) used, the authors stress that the benefits of such exercises is not enhancing the interpretation of specific works but rather in “helping bring the works we study to life, in making real to twenty-first-century undergraduates the commitments and passions of eighteenth-century writers and readers” (29).
IV. External and Internal Problems
Before addressing particular kinds of problems, Marshall and Hume review the basic and advance search capabilities of digital Burney. As the authors rightly note, these two search types will already be familiar to ECCO users. Proximity searches–searches in which one uses a “W” to find occurrences of a term that follows another within a certain number of words (e.g., “Hogg w5 Giltspur” will uncover Hogg within five words of “Giltspur”) or an “N” to find occurrences of a term preceded or followed by another (e.g., “Hogg N20 Giltspur” will return cases of Hogg appearing either before or after “Giltspur” within twenty words of each other)–can be done using either the basic or advanced search. Both kinds of searches can be limited by date and publication titles; both handle wildcard searches (! represents either a blank or any single character; * represents multiple characters, and ? represents any single character); and both accommodate “fuzzy” searches (31-34). This discussion offers even more detailed advice, including remarks about potential outcomes from various search methods.
The first set of problems falls under the rubric “External Issues.” While issues such as incomplete runs have emerged in previous emob discussions and the EC/ASECS and ASECS round-tables on these research tools, the approach taken here differs in some respects from points raised in these forums. In addition to incomplete runs (the authors are rightfully thankful for their inclusion and also offer suggestions for locating copies not in the collection), Marshall and Hume discuss the difficulties encountered when searching for material referenced in published works due to the high error rates of citations for eighteenth-century newspapers (35-36). In doing so they also suggest ways to navigate these false citations.
Spread-Date Papers and Other Problems with the Documentation and Search Results:
A serious problem with the disastrous potential for being reproduced exponentially involves the dates digital Burney currently provides for individual issues of titles not published daily. For newspapers published weekly or twice or three times a week,
[i]f the search engine is used to go directly to a news item or advertisement, the only date the user will see is the wrong one. The correct one has to be found by taking a multi-click detour to bring up the first page of the issue and then resize it to read the printed date on the original paper–ifthe user realizes that this may be a spread-date [a title whose issues each cover a spread of days between publications] newspaper and knows to check. [Footnote 50 indicates that Gale is in the process of rectifying this problem; “Scott Dawson of Gale informs us that they have identified some 70,000 instances of the problem” as of July 2009 (my emphasis)]. (37)
Duplication is yet another problem and comes in several forms. The Burney collection contains duplicate copies of a given issue as well as duplicate runs of a given title, which at times will result in the appearance of more hits than actually occur (37-38). Another kind of “duplication” results from the habit of newspapers publishing copy identical to that found in other papers (38).
Acknowledging the problems stemming from OCR technology and the erratic search results these problems generate, Marshall and Hume briefly mention some of the issues already raised in previous emob postings. In terms of false negatives, they usefully remind us of the role played by the Burney search engine’s design. For example, if one’s search term appears across two pages, then that occurrence will be omitted from the results (41). Citing Jim May’s recent article, “Accessing the Inclusiveness of Searches in the Online Burney Newspapers Collection” (The Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer N.S. 23:2 [May 2009]: 28-34), the authors ruefully report that their experiences with search results correspond to May’s claim “that anything from 20 to 50 percent (or more) of what can be found by manually eyeballing the full texts of newspapers will not show up in the list of results” (41).
Marshall and Hume offer three, serious cases of false negatives, most stemming from the poor condition of the original. Yet, they close this discussion with an example of “a dire problem in Burney’s presentation of Steele’s Tatler (1709-1711)” that arise from problems with the source material made available to Gale (42). In this case, “the first nine months’ worth of one of the foremost early eighteenth-century English periodicals has functionally been erased” because the source used mixed original Tatler issues with the front matter and other material from later book reprints (43-44). Rather than appear in digital Burney under the title “Tatler,” these pre-1710 issues instead appear under the title Lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff. While the authors note that this problem could be lessened via “simple relabeling and cross-referencing” (44), the problem also underscores the importance of hands-on scholarly involvement in the preparation and execution of such digitization projects.
Some Interface Issues: Under this heading the authors detail “nine of our pet peeves” with the current interface (44).
1. While one can search or view results according to particular categories of publication such as “Classified Ads” or “Commercial News,” these sections are fairly meaningless, and an advertisement can easily appear under news or vice versa (44).
2. The inability to perform case sensitive searches (45).
3. The inability to control the elimination of “stop” words such as “the,” “a,” or “be” when one is seeking hits for a specific phrase or string of words (45).
4. The numerous clicks one must endure to confirm the paper, date, day; the best solution to this problem would be for Gale to offer the title and spread date on each and every display page (45).
5. Related to (4), “that title and date would appear with whatever one printed from page to page.” As the authors note, the need to record manually this information on printed copy of a given page encourages the occurrence of errors, many of which will be multiplied as erroneous citations in future publications (45).
6. The Browse Publication Title inefficiently results in “a set of links to what are reported as “[X number of] issues” chopped into [X–often in the thousands] chunks of News Advertisements, Business News, etc.” and consequently requires the user to guess where “the desired date might fall.” While using the “Publication Search” is a better approach, this search is not without its problems (46).
7. The inability to search efficiently for “Other papers for the same date.” Currently, without such a dedicated search feature for this option, one must conduct an “Advanced Search” using “Publication Date”; if multiple dates are sought, one must repeat the process for each date desired (47).
8. The confusion between the “Previous/Next Article” (“article” here is a misnomer) and “Previous/Next Page”; the first navigates results found, while the second, which appears directly above the newspaper’s text, will take the user to the next page in the issue being viewed (47).
9. Although one has three options of searching for particular issues of a given title, the three processes differ in their operations, primarily in whether they accept or not the inclusion of an opening article (“the”) in a newspaper’s title (47, 49).
Following the “pet peeves” list, the authors offer useful information and advice about the intricacies in printing one’s results. Such information is particular valuable, for as the authors also note, digital Burney’s “printing facility is neither self-evident nor at present particularly well explained” (50). Especially vexing is the failure of several print options to include title and date details.
V. Observations and Conclusions
Admitting that hindsight makes for easy criticism, Marshall and Hume nonetheless correctly claim that many of the problems identified in Burney might have been avoided if scholars with appropriate expertise had been closely consulted in the preparatory stages of this significant tool (50). Similarly, if the interface and search features had been tested by actual, potential users, many of the snags in searching might have been eliminated in advance of the tool’s official release. They also draw attention to the commercial nature of the enterprise. Although they do not mention affordable access here or elsewhere, they do stress the high expense and the subsequent expectation among purchasers that “when significant problems emerge … they need to be seriously addressed” (51). The efforts underway to correct the dating errors in spread-date newspapers is no doubt an example of a serious problem that is receiving attention.
Despite existing problems Marshall and Hume celebrate the wondrous possibilities that digital Burney does afford. While they clearly view research and scholarship as the realms in which digital Burney’s transformative effects will first be felt, they also reiterate the radical alterations it will eventually bring to teaching and classroom practices (52).