160-year-old magazine finds new life through Penn State digitization

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Julia Schrank, a Penn State undergraduate student majoring in French and Francophone studies, combed through the magazine carefully, searching for key words as she encoded the digitized file. Many of the stories’ topics would be familiar to anyone who’s picked up a women’s magazine recently: fashion, cooking and housekeeping. The articles Schrank was reading, however, were published in 1846. 

In the spring, Schrank was studying 19th-century French women writers in a seminar with French professor Bénédicte Monicat. During a section on journal writing, Monicat introduced Schrank to the four-year collection of the journal Magasin des Demoiselles (Magazine for Young Women) her family had passed down for generations.

“These volumes talked about everything the editors thought a young lady should know,” Monicat explained. “There are pieces about fashion, history, housekeeping and geography, among other things. They serve as important primary documents for both gender and 19th-century studies.”

Holding several hundred pages each, the hardback volumes look more like dictionaries than the slim, soft-covered magazines of today. But with the pages becoming brittle and delicate with age, it was growing impractical for researchers to page through them looking for the right information.

Schrank and Monicat decided they needed a quicker, easier way to search them.

Working with Dawn Childress, humanities librarian at Penn State, Monicat decided digitization was the best solution — and one that could potentially offer huge benefits for scholars interested in studying cultural literature in the 1800s. She sent the four volumes to Albert Rozo, reformatting supervisor in the University Libraries’ Digitization and Preservation department, whose work has been a big part of Penn State's ongoing digitization initiative. He scanned the issues into digital files and applied Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software so the files would be word-searchable, just like a document on a word processor.

“One goal of digitization is to make a document more widely accessible and to protect the physical copy from over-handling. The less you have to touch the physical copy, the better, and the digitization process assists with this when it comes to research.”
                           -- Albert Rozo, reformatting supervisor 

“One goal of digitization is to make a document more widely accessible and to protect the physical copy from over-handling, Rozo said. "The less you have to touch the physical copy, the better, and the digitization process assists with this when it comes to research.”

After digitization, Schrank found it easier to study the books when she wasn’t worried about tearing the pages or breaking the binding. Eager to get some research under her belt, she volunteered to take the lead on encoding the files. Already having a vested interest in 19th century France, she found herself relating to the articles, even though they were written for a generation born over 150 years before her.

“A lot of the topics are the same as what you see today, but the difference was how in-depth the articles went,” Schrank said. “We found one story about a fashionable new fur coat, but instead of just talking about where to buy it, the article also detailed the history of the jacket and the trip to the Arctic to do the trapping. To me, this implies the magazine is building a foundation for conscious consumer behaviors, something we’re sometimes lacking today.”

Hoping the story about the coat wasn’t a fluke, Schrank and Monicat wanted a way to annotate the volumes so they could be better searched and studied for overarching themes. They settled on a specialized XML language called the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) and the software program Oxygen to help them. XML doesn’t change the way a file looks, but is instead a way to categorize information, key words and themes so they can be searched for later.

For example, a researcher interested in French fashion may want to use the magazine to study how fashion evolved in the 1840s. Searching for the word "clothing" in a standard OCR-enabled digital file will only bring up each instance of that precise term. If, however, someone took the time to “tag” all similar words like "jacket," "coat" and "dress" with the word "clothing" using XML, those instances would show up as well. This broadens the search and makes it much more comprehensive.

“It’s a bit of a tedious process, and using Oxygen helped me stay organized when I was encoding,” Schrank explained. “I tagged key words such as products, foreign words, places, persons and nationalities, among others. I like to compare it to hashtags on Twitter. It’s a way to annotate the document for topics people may want to search for and study.”

All four years of issues are far from being done, but Schrank is still working hard on getting them completed. Monicat said she’s looking forward to using the newly-digitized journals in future classes and seminars, and the doors have been opened for researchers now and in the future to do in-depth studies of the volumes. She expects to see research on topics such as stylistics and visual studies, as well as cultural themes and trends in a transnational context.

But for now, the books are sitting safely on a shelf in Monicat’s office while Schrank pores over the digital files on her computer. Just as fashion evolved across its pages 150 years ago, the Magasin des Demoiselles has found new life through digitization.

For more information on Penn State’s library digitization initiative.

For more stories about IT at Penn State, visit Current at http://current.it.psu.edu/.


 

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Last Updated October 17, 2013