Transfiguring the Newspaper: From Paper to Microfilm to Database

Presentation by Sandra Gabriele (Concordia University).

The rise of databases containing collections of historical newspapers has been heralded as an efficient and potentially revolutionary way of accessing our cultural heritage. Networked databases facilitate the creation of large datasets and comparative research across larger geographic regions. Corporations create and manage many newspaper databases, making access contingent on a range of factors.

In “Database as Symbolic Form,” Lev Manovich argues that the database constitutes a fundamental shift in the organizing principles of culture from linear, chronological narratives to programmable, nonlinear arrays of data. Manovich’s observations about database logic are essential for a consideration of the newspaper in networked digital culture. As microfilm, the newspaper remains a modern cultural object: linear, chronological and photographically fixed as a singular title, tied to a specific geographic location and community of readers. Newspaper databases operate by a different logic altogether, where algorithms define the dynamic arrangement of individual elements on a virtual page, potentially different for every reader. The temporal and spatial arrangements that once dominated reading (on paper or microfilm) are disrupted by networked databases, which make local small-town papers as available — and potentially interesting research objects — as major metropolitan papers.

This paper will consider the material transformations implied by the shift in medium as newspapers are transfigured from paper to microfilm to database. Using the case study of the change in ownership of Canada’s first commercial database of historical newspapers from Cold North Wind to Google and back again, this paper will map out the material and democratic stakes implied by the material change in media.

Sandra Gabriele is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies, Concordia University (Montreal, Canada). She is co-editor (with Will Straw and Ira Wagman) and co-author of Intersections of Media and Communications: Concepts and Critical Frameworks. (Emond Montgomery Publications 2011). She is the author of numerous journal articles, including her most recent, “Cross-border transgressions: The American Sunday newspaper, the Lord’s Day Alliance and the reading public, 1890-1916” Topia: A Journal of Cultural Studies (Spring 2011). She is currently finishing a SSHRC-funded research project on the intermedial history of the rise of the weekend newspaper, 1880-1923.

Sandra Gabriele presents at "Network Archaeology."

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  1. Pingback: Sorting Network Artifacts, Part 1 | Words in Space

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