Last week, my new article “Illusionary Order: Online Databases, Optical Character Recognition, and Canadian History, 1997–2010” appeared in the December 2013 issue of the Canadian Historical Review. It is not yet available on Project MUSE (it will be shortly), but if your institution is a subscriber to the journal itself you may be able to get access here.
I wanted to highlight it for two reasons:
Firstly, I think the argument itself is important. In a nut shell, I look at how the availability of newspapers changes how we write our histories. As I put it, historians cite what is online. Yet we have not made this explicit. In this article, I argue that we need to do so.
Secondly, it reflects my new approach to scholarly dissemination: from blog post to peer-reviewed article. In late March 2012, I published “Illusionary Order: Cautionary Notes for Online Newspapers” on ActiveHistory.ca. It had an overwhelmingly positive reception: reprinted by History News Network, discussed on H-Net, linked to by many libraries, the American Historical Association, and extensively spread around on Twitter. It also ended up on DH Now. I had been planning to make it an article, but this cemented the plans. I stepped up my research, mined over a thousand Canadian history dissertations, and after submitting it and going through the review process it was accepted in March 2013. Given that my goal is to make this a part of graduate pedagogy in Canadian history, the Canadian Historical Review was arguably the best place to publish this piece.
If it hadn’t been for blogging, I don’t think it would have been so quick. Anyways, I will update when it is available on Project MUSE as I suspect that will be better for many of you.
Continue reading for an introduction to whet your appetite:
It all seems so orderly, advanced, and comprehensive. Instead of firing up the microfilm reader to navigate the Globe and Mail or Toronto Star, one needs only to log into online newspaper databases through a library portal. A keyword search for a particular event, person, or cultural phenomenon brings up a list of research findings. While date-by-date searching is also available, it seems clunky and slow; keyword searching, however, offers something new, something potentially transformative. Each result is broken down by date, newspaper page number, the section it appears in, and a further click-through brings you to the entire page, scanned at a decently high resolution, search terms highlighted for convenience. The surrounding context of the page, advertisements, and the original layout are all preserved. Previously impossible or implausible research projects can now be approached, especially when they involve wide swaths of social or cultural terrain.
Researchers cite what they find online. This is a problem as this research process is built upon an often-misunderstood foundation, which matters due to the sheer increase in online-source citations. We can see this if we compare the ways historical newspapers were used before and after the introduction of two significant databases. Some examples are illustrative. In 1998, a year with 67 Canadian history dissertations in the ProQuest dissertation database, the Toronto Star appeared 74 times in that dataset; by 2010, it appeared 753 times in a slightly larger dataset of 69 dissertations. Controlled for sample size, this is a remarkable 991% increase. The Globe and Mail saw similar growth: 58 to 708 (a 926% increase). The Montreal Gazette, however, remained relatively stagnant (136 to 162, or 16% increase), while the Toronto Telegram decreased slightly (31 to 19, or 72% decrease). This is not simply confined to dissertations; a similar survey of articles published in the Canadian Historical Review demonstrates similar growth: the Globe and Mail went from being rarely cited between 1997 to 2002 to being by far the most cited newspaper between 2005 to 2011. What does this shift mean?