Culturomics’s New Project Has Periodicals

Harvard’s Cultural Observatory–the home of Culturomics and Google ngrams–has quietly introduced Bookworm, a new (still in alpha) tool for interacting with digitized library books.  The databases this time around are the Open Library and Internet Archive, and it searches only works in the public domain (more specifically, 1830-1922), which makes it a great took for studying the development of modernism.  It improves on nGrams in 3 big ways.

1.  It allows you to compare the appearance of of a word (only single words [1-grams] at this point) in different kinds of sources from different nations.

Here’s “modernist” as it appeared in works classified as “Language and Literature” in America and in Britain and “Philosophy, Psychology, and Religion,” without respect to nation.  The graph confirms that “modernist” (like “modernism”) was, into the Twenties, a word that belonged to theological rather than literary discourse.  It would be terrific to see just when the red and blue literary lines cross the green one, but copyright prevents Bookworm from looking.  Stupid copyright laws.

2.  It provides direct links to full texts.

3.  It includes magazines!  But this is not as exciting as it should be, not yet at least.

The graph displays an intriguing break in the level of interest in “tradition” in US and UK publications.  British concern with the word grows at roughly the same rate that it declines in America.  Periodicals appear to be obsessed with the word–the graph suggests that for long periods of time “tradition” appears in 100% or close to 100% of magazines.  That’s obviously not true.  One reason for this error appears to be the small number of periodicals included in the Bookworm database.

All the same, it’s encouraging to see the Culturomics guys recognizing the significance of magazines.  For my money, periodicals provide a much more powerful tool for gaining a granular understanding of historical change.  (Most) books took too long to produce, and they’re not (typically) explicitly engaged in dialogue and debate over ephemeralities.  We need to be able to query periodicals in order to see change happen.


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