The Affordances of Digital Technology for Media History Research (Part One)

The Media History Digital Library (MHDL) digitizes out-of-copyright periodicals relating to the histories of film, broadcasting, and recorded sound and makes them widely available for public use. The project promotes media history scholarship, provides educational tools for classroom use, and advocates for greater engagement with the public domain. A non-profit initiative, the MHDL is supported by owners of materials who loan them for scanning, and donors who contribute funds to cover the cost of scanning.

In this discussion, MHDL co-director Eric Hoyt talks with project’s post-processing editor Andy Myers and film historian Kathy Fuller-Seeley, who digitized reels of microfilm in the course of her own research that she donated to the MHDL. Eric, Kathy, and Andy talk about the value of digitizing the historical sources, the challenges involved in the process, and bringing together the communities of fans and scholars.


What is the value of digitizing historic trade papers and fan magazines?


Kathy Fuller-Seeley: I’m an enthusiastic fan of digitized trade journals, fan magazines and newspapers. Their availability has had a transformative impact on my research, allowing me to dig more deeply into published coverage of all my topics, and also creating new research projects.  I live far from the libraries and archives that hold the original publications, and my relatively young state university can’t/won’t invest in an extensive microfilm library. Far beyond the convenience of not having to squint at scratched microfilm and having rare journals available day or night, I’m enthralled that digitization reveals much more complex views of my research topics.  I’m not just cherry picking one or two articles that I might have stumbled across in print or in someone’s scrapbook, I am encountering masses of coverage that I can analyze and weigh as a whole.

Quick examples from current research projects – digitized Photoplay enabled me to uncover how the mainstream Hollywood publicity machinery constructed star personae for unusual performers such as Shirley Temple, Rin Tin Tin and Marie Dressler, and marketed them to working-and middle-class female fans.  Searchable Variety uncovered for me the innovative ways in which Jack Benny and his agents intertwined his performances and star image across radio, film, live appearances and consumer product advertising to achieve incredible career synergy. Newspaper databases like the Library of Congress’s allowed me to trace the diffusion of the earliest “picture personalities” (Florence Turner the Vitagraph Girl and Florence Lawrence the “Imp Girl”) fame far beyond the original promotional material published in national trade journals and the New York papers to the creation of local fan cultures in rural New England, Utah, Arizona and the Yukon.

In researching film history, digitized trade journals and newspapers enable us to learn more about exhibition practices and circulation of fan culture outside major metropolitan areas (and scholar’s over-reliance on the New York Times). Access to the fan magazines enables close readings of how Hollywood structured knowledge about stars and films for their target audiences. Having access to searchable trade papers can not only shows us what they covered, but also topics they purposely avoided (such as competing non-film promotions like Dish Night giveaways during the Depression). They make new research topics possible, such as the recent work of historians Paul Moore and Richard Abel on intersections of newspaper discourse and moviegoing culture. The NEH is currently sponsoring a series of grants for “digging into the data” to expand our thinking about these research possibilities.

Andy Myers:

Our role in digitizing these publications, as I see it, is about ensuring three things: accessibility, discoverability, and browse-ability.

Enabling access is the first and most obvious benefit of digitizing these resources. For example, two years ago as a student at UCLA I was working on a project on the American anti-Bolshevik films from 1919 and 1920. The secondary sources I was using kept referencing articles in The Moving Picture World (MPW), and I had dozens of such references to track down. Even our fantastic library at UCLA didn’t have anything from MPW from those years, but after some searching I eventually located a microfilm copy at the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles and made a special trip. Now, I’m lucky enough to live and study in Los Angeles, where the archival resources for media history are unparalleled, so I only had to drive a few miles and spend an afternoon. But scholars in other parts of the world would have a much more difficult trial in accessing MPW or other publications, many of which are not even available on microfilm.  Now that the MHDL is making long runs of classic publications like The Moving Picture World available digitally, the kinds of barriers to access scholars have faced even in the recent past are now evaporating.

Simply providing access to information is useless, however, if nobody can find it – that new information has to be easily discoverable. Online catalogs and databases are very good at directing the user to an appropriate resource when the user already knows with some specificity what he or she is looking for. For example, I can read an article that mentions the film The World Aflame (1919), see a footnote to a May 1919 issue of Moving Picture World, and then very easily and quickly navigate to the online resource.

But how do I find that article without a secondary reference, if I only have the film title and the year? Full text search is, of course, essential to ensuring discoverability — and our upcoming Lantern search tool should facilitate that. In addition to search, there are also a couple other considerations for making resources discoverable. One priority is that we curate a user experience that empowers users to intuitively cut through the database, narrowing their research net according to criteria such as year, format (e.g. book or periodical), the type of publication (e.g. trade journal or fan magazine), or specific publication title.

Academics are, of course, well accustomed to advanced catalog and database searches, but most of these repositories are so immense and diverse that browsing is impractical or impossible. So we aim to supplement that random-access database searching paradigm with a sort of microfilm paradigm.’s curated collections on various topics are manageable in size and allow users to easily browse the resources we have available for their research without being overwhelmed with irrelevant matches. And once users open a publication, in addition to being able to use standard search tools, they can also flip through the entire book page-by-page incredibly quickly, the same way that microfilm researchers can.

As I suspect nearly every veteran microfilm researcher would attest, skimming through entire months and years of a publication — rather than simply cherry-picking search hits — will yield incredibly valuable insights into the historical and social contexts of the topic that the researcher is studying, as well as uncover unexpected but closely related contemporary issues. The browse-ability features of the MHDL allow researchers to immerse themselves into the historical moment and buttress their argument with a full array of related evidence. OCR is often imperfect, particularly in cases of creatively typeset headlines and advertisements, so it’s often the case that relevant material can only be discovered through good, old-fashioned skimming. By offering this hybridization of research paradigms, we hope users will be able to pursue whatever approach of searching and/or browsing works best for them and their project.


Eric Hoyt:

In their responses to this question, Kathy and Andy both nicely highlight some of the ways that digitization improves the research process for film historians. What I want to emphasize here is that I’m proud not simply about the fact that the MHDL has been digitizing important trade journals and magazines but about how we’ve gone about doing this. First, through coordinating with the Internet Archive, we’re primarily scanning original print editions rather than microfilm. This means color, better images, better OCR data, better everything.

I’ve come to appreciate, though, that scanning microfilm also has its place and benefits. For some oversized and particularly brittle newspapers, microfilm scanning is the only option. We were fortunate that Kathy and Q. David Bowers supplied us with over a dozen DVD-Rs worth of microfilm scans for some of these newspapers, including The Clipper and two years worth of Variety. Andy handled post-processing work on the microfilm scans, and now anyone with an open Internet port around the world can see them.

It’s this collaborative and open access model that I think defines the project. The collections of the MHDL only exist because of collaboration. I’ve collaborated closely with the project’s founder and director David Pierce, digital archivist Wendy Hagenmaier, and others in coordinating the scanning and improving our website. However, collaboration also underlies the entire acquisition and funding structure. The MHDL is supported by collectors and institutions who loan materials for scanning, and donors who cover the costs of digitization. We’ve also begun collaborating with academic groups that want to see more publications pertaining to a certain area go online. Domitor, the International Society for the Study of Early Cinema, raised over $6,000 among its member-base to contribute to the digitization of Moving Picture World and other early cinema publications.

The MHDL is also built upon open access. Most people in the world with an Internet connection have the ability to go to our site and freely read or download as many publications as they want. For users who want access to the underlying source, you can click through to a volume’s Internet Archive page (IA page) and access the uncompressed JPEGs, OCR text, and XML metadata.

We work with materials that belong in the public domain, and this provides the legal foundation for open access. But keeping things open is also a decision on our part. Subscription services, such as ProQuest and the Variety Archives, are walled gardens. Although they offer access to licensed copyrighted material, they also store countless pages worth of digitized public domain periodicals. As I have argued in the International Journal Learning and Media, I think we need to encourage public access and engagement with the public domain and call attention to this shared resource. Through digital technology and collaborative loaning and funding structures, we have the opportunity to offer broad access to public domain texts and enable their reuse across a variety of forms. To extend the earlier metaphor, we can build public parks, rather than walled gardens.





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.