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Ryan Cordell, '"The Best Mechanical Paper in the World": Scientific American, Reprinting, & the Circulation of Popular Science in Nineteenth-Century Newspapers, IHR Digital History Seminar, 17 May 2016

Live notes, so an incomplete, partial record of what actually happened.

Tags: dhist

My asides in {}



Viral texts is a big and expansive project.

Most current research around the Scientific American: longest most continually published magazine in the US. Now a magazine, was more akin to a newspaper in the mid-C19. A blend of information and amusement. Self-identified as a 'mechanical journal'.

C19 Newspapers: much more hybrid than newspapers today. Manners columns. Reflections. Advice. Poetry. Very short news. Fiction. Not divided into sections as we expect. Explicitly political in North America. See for a clear sense of this.

And things widely reprinted. Small papers with few editors. Exchanges list: a list of newspapers an editor subscribes to. Articles reused, sometimes immediately, sometimes put in a draw: perhaps organised by size of article.

2m reprinted texts from Chronicling America. Adding other North American magazines. Now building in international texts.

Problem with databases like is that you can only find things you already know about. And the challenge is that the text can change as it is reprinted in order to fit the page. And then OCRing the text changes the text again.

#dhist @RyanCordell 'how can we find widely circulated texts if we don't already know which texts to look for?' Sequences of words (n-grams)

— Mia (@mia_out) May 17, 2016
<script async src="//" charset="utf-8"></script>

Most success working with 5-grams. Once there is enough matching bits within a certain threshold we get a match. So not trying to match texts end to end.

Now know more about what people read in the C19. Went into it looking for stories and poetry. But literary genres have only been a small part of the project, the ecology of print culture that surrounding these literary genres.

More reprinted texts short, repeatable.

Using the texts to find networks of reprinting. Insight from this is how magazines fitted into North American reprinting culture. Isolated and not as thickly connected. Newspapers borrowed from the magazines, but magazines not printed as much from the newspapers. But Scientific American much closer to the newspapers: and it's the only science magazine.

Scientific American had more space to fill than other magazines. But not just practical. Also ideological. Allied with genre of 'information literature': facts about life, trivia, lists. As they circulate the numbers in the facts start to change. Ephemeral filler that was super popular and liberally reprinted: 20%-20% of reprinting. Scientific American had a authority that its name would follow a piece even if it didn't originally come from Scientific American: citing was rare otherwise.

#dhist @RyanCordell listicles aren't new! He didn't expect to find them in 19th century newspapers. Structure stable but facts changed.

— Mia (@mia_out) May 17, 2016
<script async src="//" charset="utf-8"></script>

Little steady reprinting. Flurries of activity as it comes in and out of the exchange system.

Newspaper editors encouraged readers to see newspapers as a serial compendium. Framed success around reading and deploying useful information. Industrialised knowledge. Privileged text.

Scientific American: promised to provide scientific truth, decried errors of fact in newspapers and yet liberally reprinted from newspapers. And doesn't cite its sources! When it does cite, it is to correct inaccuracy. And searching for reprints has found things correct by Scientific American that it had previous printed uncorrected. Anxiety about information circulation. See this in things like Chamber Information for the People, a 'cheap' useful knowledge publication that worried about misinformation

Reprinting in the US (especially with regard to European books) valued as a democratic right of sorts.

Scientific American gradually moved to a more 'authoritative' magazine form.

Got to Scientific American through organising the data. Not because we were looking for it. It was suggested by how to worked through the data.

Future work: get out of US. And get out of English. Lots of German language newspapers in the US (and Australia). Trying to bind them together. Multi-lingual work.

Trying to find ways to point to papers that are not digitised by appear to be important.


Some admin...

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