First Big Bird, now Little Magazines?!?: Sen.Tom Coburn Goes After the MJP

In what must be the most surreal news of the week, perfectly timed to the MSA conference in Las Vegas, Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma has identified the Modernist Journals Project as #79 on his list of 100 items for the 2012 editionof his annual Wastebook, which, to quote the press release,

highlights more than $18 billion in examples of some of the most egregious ways your taxpayer dollars were wasted in 2012. This report highlights 100 of the year’s countless unnecessary, duplicative and low-priority projects spread throughout the federal government.

The list doesn’t name the MJP; it just calls it  “Duplicate magazine preservation – (OK; RI) $270,000” and provides this summary of the NEH grant.

Tulsa University and Brown University will use federal funds to digitize old magazines, most of which are already available for free online.

I should say that I in no way speak for the MJP nor am I officially affiliated with it.  I have a piece up in their teaching wiki, and this site is linked to it.  I am friends with people who administer it.  I am not speaking for them.  I am speaking as a regular user, both in the classroom and in my research.  You can see one response from Sean Latham, co-director of the MJP, on this Oklahoma news program.

I have to say that I’m sort of stunned that the MJP ever appeared on Coburn’s radar, but it may not be an entirely bad thing.  It shows that it has enough reach to get the attention of someone  you’d never expect to know about it.  Plus, there’s the honor of being criticized by the government.

Of course, I don’t for a second think that Coburn is spending all his downtime in DC googling full text reproductions of Mina Loy poems and wondering whether he should read the version of “Love Songs” in Others, vol 1, number 1, at Hathi or the MJP.  The NEH grant that was criticized was obviously something a staffer in Coburn’s office found and presumably took enough time to discover that some online duplication exists.

What Coburn’s office did not take the time to notice was that the MJP does much, much more than digitize “old magazines.”  It scans periodicals that are part of the national heritage and international culture, carefully,producing high quality images of complete issues, including covers, ads, and other materials stripped from many library runs.  The MJP’s scans are carefully coded in order to make sure that the issues are fully searchable, so that any person familiar with Google can easily locate something of interest among thousands of pages.  In the process, she might well make some serendipitous discoveries of material even more useful or exciting than what she was looking for.  That’s one of the powers of magazines–they show us more of history than what we’re looking for.  What some people call “old magazines”–the kind of things any sensible person binds up and puts in his recycling bin–others consider valuable  artifacts providing a richer and deeper contact not just with high art and literature, but the history of advertising, civil rights, feminism, and politics.

But wait, there’s more.  The MJP has begun making available all the metadata produced in the process of creating these free, searchable, online versions of magazines that are increasingly difficult to locate in archives as they are gradually crumbling.  This provides access in two senses:  anyone with an internet connection can see the MJP and download complete pdf versions of magazines, and the metadata opens up the periodicals to different level of analysis (and here) (and here).  Finally, let us not forget the site’s original texts, materials produced by scholars in the field:  author biographies, introductions to periodicals, and suggestions for using the MJP to teach.  Please add your own thoughts in the comments on what makes the MJP a great use of federal money. If you’d like to contact Sen. Coburn about what he’s missed, here’s a link to his contact form.

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