The Media History Digital Library seeks to bring together communities of scholars and fans. How do you see the relationship between scholarly research and fandom in your own work?
The title of Henry’s blog where we are having this discussion—“Confessions of an Aca-Fan”—speaks to the way that personal passion and scholarly inquiry shape one another.
I am certainly an aca-fan of both historic and contemporary Hollywood. I tend to pursue research questions related to law, culture, and industry, rather than film style or aesthetics. But the whole reason I focus on the film and media industries—rather than, say, the corrugated box industry—comes from a deep love and fascination with films and television programs.
As a Film & Media Studies academic, I also feel grateful to study an area of culture that holds such broad popular interest. I think it’s a shame if we don’t connect with that broader public. We miss an opportunity to share our research. We also miss out on a chance to learn.
Something that many scholars already know but bears repeating is that many of the materials on the MHDL only exist because of fans. From the 1910s forward, fans purchased magazines, such as Motion Picture Story and Photoplay, to extend and deepen the movie-going experience. Most libraries in the early-20th century considered these magazines to be mere ephemera and did not keep them. So many of these magazines only exist today because fans bothered to keep them. I am grateful to fans and collectors for keeping these documents of film history and supporting the MHDL in its endeavor to make them freely available online.
As Eric mentioned, many of these publications are, in multiple ways, inextricable from the context of fan culture. Fans have not only collected and preserved these publications — their interest and investment in film culture actually provided the necessary market demand for these magazines to exist in the first place. Fan magazines like Photoplay were in constant dialogue with their audience and thus can provide scholars key texts in the history of fan discourse. For me, the eclectic fan letters reprinted in these magazines are one of their most fascinating and entertaining features because they offer so many surprising insights into the breadth of film fan culture.
Various aspects of fandom have always been central to my own work, as the questions that sparked my dissertation research were how did Americans in small towns and rural hinterlands come into contact with motion pictures in everyday life, and how did the growing movie fan culture engage them. I second Eric’s gratitude to fans back in the day who saved fan magazines and ephemera and who compiled scrapbooks and kept diaries. Libraries long turned up their noses at saving such disposable popular culture. We are fortunate that archives like the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and Northeast Historic Film have amassed robust collections. Today, individual collectors still hold the most fascinating moviegoing ephemera – real photo postcards of nickelodeon theaters, posters, illustrated song slides, pressbooks, trade journals, theater accounting ledgers, etc. I’m very appreciative of the generosity of many who have shared their archival treasures with me.
Now I am wondering how we can collaborate with collectors to make more of these materials available to the public for research purposes, and I am investigating ways of digitizing my own collections online. (you can see my collection of images from the “world premiere” of the 1937 United Artists film Blockade in, of all places, Elkhart, Indiana at http://www2.gsu.edu/~jougms/blocimg.htm along with a terrific essay by my colleague Greg Smith).
Where do we go from here?
My Digitized Dream Wishlist includes
- A full run of Motion Picture Herald
- A full run of Moving Picture World (which the MHDL is rapidly accruing, hooray!!!)
- Exhibitors Trade Review
- Hollywood Reporter
- Variety (in a more user-friendly data-searching software! It is difficult to read an issue page by page).
- New York Clipper and New York Dramatic Mirror (these two are available in part through the Fulton County website, but the database is clunky and its somewhat difficult to search)
- orphaned New York City newspapers like the Herald and World and Telegraph; I still have no source for John Crosby’s radio and television criticism or Alton Cook’s radio columns. I wish Proquest would make subscriptions to multiple historic newspapers available and reasonably priced for individual researchers! One year, a membership in the Society for American Baseball Research provided access, and that was terrific.
Even better is free to the public, and I am so grateful for the work of the MHDL to make all these fascinating documents available for everyone!
We’ve now digitized over 500,000 pages of media periodicals. By the end of this year, we may surpass one million pages. A question that I’ve been asking myself is—once you’ve aggregated all of that data, what do you do with it? One thing you clearly need to be able to do is swiftly search through the data. I have been collaborating with a great team—which includes Carl Hagenmaier, Wendy Hagenmaier, Joseph Pomp, Andy Myers, Pete Sengstock, Jason Quist, and new collaborators at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—on building Lantern, a search engine for the MHDL. Search will be an important tool for researchers and historians. It will also provide a much easier entry point into our collection for users who are passionate about classic movies and television but don’t know where to start looking.
In addition to search, though, what else can you do with all that aggregated data? It would take me years to read through every page of text in the MHDL. A computer, on the other hand, reads the data in seconds. This is the basis for full-text search, but it also opens up new possibilities that Humanities scholars interested in quantitative methods and “big data” are only beginning to explore. Google Ngram Viewer, for example, allows you to graph the frequency of words and phrases across a corpus of five million books. Here is a graph I quickly compiled of the terms 16mm, 8mm, and 28mm. This graph immediately suggests a story about the cultural, industrial, and technological importance of these “sub-standard” film stocks across a hundred year span. Now, it would tell you a better story if you could refine the searchable corpus—using the collections of the MHDL, rather than GoogleBooks. And it would tell you the richest story of all if you combined the insights of the graph with specific articles and books about non-theatrical film from the MHDL’s collections.
I see this as the direction where the Humanities and MHDL eventually need to head—combining the familiar practice of “close reading” with strategies of “distant reading” (to use the term coined by Franco Moretti). It’s not about abandoning the established critical tools. But we do need to learn from the data-intensive research that is happening in the sciences. I recently attended a “Humanities Hackathon” workshop hosted by UW-Madison’s Center for the Humanities and the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. I was encouraged by the enthusiasm about using computational methods in Humanities research and legitimate concerns that we perform such analyses in a thoughtful way. I am excited to pursue these new techniques in my own scholarship, as well as to help build the infrastructure and tools that will enable other scholars to join the experiment.
In the short term, as Eric mentions, our obvious goals are to add much more material, and to make system and interface improvements — such as full text search— which make it easier for users to find relevant material.
As far as long-term goals go, we want to make as much material as possible available to as many people as possible through as many avenues as possible, and we’ve been building lots of momentum. We’re not exactly declaring war on aggregators of public domain material like ProQuest — after all, we recognize that they do add value for many institutions and that these aggregators license more recent, copyrighted content too. However, with our boom in content and the upcoming launch of Lantern, we think that we are reaching a point where we can offer institutions a viable alternative to commercial providers and their high access fees. We firmly believe that our open-access model can provide better-quality material, freely available to everyone, with superior usability, at a fraction of the cost. So I really feel that in terms of growth, to paraphrase Walter White, we’re now in the empire business.
We’d also like to develop good cross-integration with other databases and resources across the web. Our digital assets are starting to be listed in the catalogs of academic libraries as electronic resources, which is a huge step to aiding discovery by researchers. I hope professors and graduate students reading this blog post right now will tell their librarians about the MHDL, and ask them to input MHDL resources into their library catalogs. Additionally, we hope to eventually add features that will facilitate discovery of material made available by other great projects around the web. Wouldn’t it be great if a full text search on MHDL would not only search our collections, but also pointed users toward results in sites like AmericanRadioHistory.com (which hosts decades of digitized broadcasting periodicals) or the Margaret Herrick Library’s digital collections? We have yet to explore the technical details of such an implementation, but I think that kind of integration is on our distant horizon.
Eric Hoyt is Assistant Professor of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He co-directs the Media History Digital Library in collaboration with the project’s founder, David Pierce. He is also leading the development of the MHDL’s new search platform, Lantern, which is a co-production with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Communication Arts. His articles on media, law, and culture have appeared in Cinema Journal, Film History, Jump Cut, World Policy Journal, and The International Journal of Learning and Media.
Kathy Fuller-Seeley is Professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia State University. She specializes in the history of film, radio, TV and media audiences. Kathy's books include Hollywood in the Neighborhood: Historical Case Studies of Local Moviegoing (California, 2008, edited), At the Picture Show: Small Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture (Smithsonian 1997), and Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy (Cambridge 1996, with G. Jowett and I. Jarvie). She has a book forthcoming on the history of nickelodeons and is writing a book project about Jack Benny’s radio program and American culture.
Andrew Myers is a doctoral student in Critical Studies at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts. He serves as the post-processing editor for the Media History Digital Library, which generally entails writing scripts to process images, text, and metadata. He recently received his M.A. in Cinema and Media Studies from UCLA and is also the outgoing co-editor-in-chief of Mediascape, UCLA's Journal of Film, Television, and Digital Media. His diverse research interests include media industries and production culture, archival film and television history, new media (especially video games), and documentary.