Before television and even before radio, American families had some free time in the evenings.
What occupied the time?
"In the early 20th century, magazines were definitely that thing," Sean Latham, a University of Tulsa professor and director of the Modernist Journals Project at TU.
They fulfilled the function of television today, offering a variety of ideas and images affordable enough to be popular with the masses.
"There would have been many more magazines in a home than books, for example," Latham said. "Books were expensive. Magazines were cheap."
Time has not been kind to the paper on which these now-historic artifacts were printed, however. The Modernist Journals Project seeks to acquire and digitize full runs of periodicals, ensuring that future generations will be able to study such titles as The Crisis, a publication of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and The Little Review, in which the first version of James Joyce's Ulysses was serialized.
The project began in the 1990s, when Latham was a graduate student at Brown University. At first the plan was to digitize a single title, The New Age, which featured the writing of notable authors including English translations of Sigmund Freud and Friedrich Nietzsche.
The learning experience led to digitizing other magazines.
"It was at that point we began to discover how tenuous the magazine archive was. That is, not many places had preserved them. Those places that had preserved them had not preserved them well," Latham said.
But the work continues on, both at Brown and at TU, with thousands of magazines issues from 1922 and earlier now digitally archived. A recent $270,000, two-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities drew the scorn of Sen. Tom Coburn, who placed it on his list of wasteful government spending.
Latham, however, said that TU and Brown provide financial support for the program, and that such support has sustained the project over the years.
He noted how magazines played roles that cut across class and even geography.
"In the early 20th century, there were many more magazines that appealed broadly than there are now, so these were magazines aimed at enormous readerships," Latham said.
The work provides a rich insight into history that is useful to more than the literary crowd, he noted.
THE CRISIS ( VOL. 7, NO. 5 )
OURTESY OF THE MODERNIST JOURNALS PROJECT
Part of the effort involves finding magazines with full advertising section intact. In the early days of magazines, ads were amassed in one section of a magazine -- and often thrown out by libraries that archived magazines.
"One of the things that makes this advertising interesting is this is the moment advertising was born, really as a print medium beyond sort of just lines of text in a magazine," Latham said. "So you really see it play out in the pages of these magazines, advertising understanding itself as a profession, as a discourse, as an aesthetic practice."
The project focuses on a surprisingly wide range of periodicals. Currently work is being done to digitize The Masses, a socialist publication whose publishers were prosecuted under the country's Sedition Act because of opposition to World War I.
A former TU student who worked on the project has now embarked on a similar project, The Pulp Magazines Project. Patrick Scott Belk, who earned his doctoral degree this year, described the project as a labor of love.
"It's a time-consuming process. We now have, I think, about 140 magazines online," said Belk, a visiting lecturer at the University of West Florida.
Such magazines -- which might feature detective stories or science fiction -- are popular with collectors, Belk said.
Of course, the magazines were also popular at the time, Belk said.
"For the cost of a movie ticket, you could buy about 200 pages of fiction, with several different authors, several different stories," Belk said.
Belk said his work remains fairly crude compared to the work done at TU.
In addition to photographing the old magazines page by page, the Modernist Journals Project catalogs the content by author, for example, making it easier for researchers to find just what they're looking for.
But "it's not just a little niche academic thing that we're doing," Latham said. "We receive several hundred unique visitors a day."
One popular page for teachers is on how best to structure a course or lesson focused on a magazine. The Crisis is the most popular magazine visited on the site, suggesting that others have recognized its historical value, Latham said.
"Our goal has always been to make this stuff available. The MJP is free. It always has been, it always will be," Latham said, adding, "we put it out there so other people can do interesting stuff with it."
In addition to making available the arresting cover art and illustrations for browsing, the project also creates data files for each issue that allow for scholars to study text using a the methods of the digital humanities, a blossoming field of study that looks at keywords and text and analyzes them for patterns.
Latham said the project has urgency based on the fragility of the magazines themselves. While the project works closely with libraries when possible, sometimes eBay provides a source for purchasing rare items.
Unfortunately, advertising from the early 20th century is popular enough that sometimes single pages are ripped out and sold on the auction site, Latham said.
When it comes to finding these magazines, "some of them are really just now on the very brink of literal destruction," Latham said.
TU Arts and Sciences Dean Tom Benediktson also noted another advantage to the digitized versions of the magazines.
"You can't steal a volume out of this set," Benediktson said.
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