On digitisation and the visibility of historic journals

Here follows a tale of two journals, a cautionary tale of the degree to which the historical record is conditioned by the interaction of technology and the economics of publishing.

Firstly, the journal Theology, perhaps the leading general theology journal in the UK. It was founded in 1920, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), already a leading publisher of books with a particular focus on the Church of England. Although its tone and content changed over time, it has always tended to provide a forum for the publication of theological writing of a breadth of concern that would interest both professional theologians and clerical and lay readers. In it one finds work on the perennial themes of the discipline alongside writing that reflected on the issues of the day, as the Anglican Communion encountered radical theological change and the pressing practical issues raised by the ecumenical movement.

Secondly, the Church Quarterly Review. Though it began life in 1875 as a privately published journal for one party within the Church of England, the CQR became a more general journal, and it too was published by SPCK from 1920. It occupied a similar space to Theology, with substantial articles aimed at both professional theologians and the wider church, and on issues old and contemporary. From the Anglican scholar Eric Mascall (one of my particular preoccupations), the CQR carried articles on topics as varied as the Eucharist, the prospects of reunion with the Church of Scotland, and the impact of the Second Vatican Council, along with dozens of book reviews. (His work also appeared regularly in Theology). But where Theology survives to the present, the CQR does not. In 1968, the journal merged with the London Quarterly and Holborn Review (a Methodist title), but the resulting Church Quarterly ran only until 1971 and was not succeeded by another title.

Although Theology is published by SPCK, its online distribution was taken over in 2011 by SAGE Publications, and the entire back run has been digitised and made available via the SAGE site. As such, scholars may now access complete metadata and the full text of the journal back to its inception. By contrast, the CQR has no public online presence whatever. Unsurprisingly, a defunct journal held little attraction for potential buyers in the great consolidation of online journal publishing of the last twenty years. And, although several SAGE journals are included in JSTOR, Theology (and other SPCK titles) are not. As such, the CQR was not swept up in retrospective digitisation as other defunct titles from publishers involved in JSTOR have been. As it is, to read the CQR I must trouble the staff at my nearest university library to walk across to a store in a separate building and fetch the volumes for me.

There is, I think, an issue here that sits in the intersection of other questions of technology and practice which are better known. It is abundantly clear that current (or very recent) issues of journals that are available online have an advantage over those available only in print, and that the advantage is compounded when the journal is available Open Access. There is now also a great deal of stimulating reflection on the impact of digitised historic sources on historical practice. Within that, it has been observed that the digitisation of newspapers such as The Times earlier than other, equally prominent national newspapers risked skewing readers’ attention towards one source at the expense of another. Despite scholars’ best intentions – of leaving no stone unturned to get to the truth, no matter how heavy the stone – it is at least plausible that more easily accessible sources will be privileged. And the cases of Theology and the CQR suggest that the same might be true in certain fields of modern intellectual history, as the back issues of some current journals are digitised as a byproduct of current needs and others are not. That process of digitisation has tended to favour journals that survive over those that do not, and (in the case of JSTOR), defunct titles seem to stand a better chance if they were absorbed by one that survives.

Of course, it may well be that the CQR is in fact a less significant journal for twentieth century religious history than is Theology. But historical matters become perceived as significant partly as a result of the attention they are paid. It is at least possible that the relative ease of access to Theology will in itself (over time) give it a significance greater than the CQR by a kind of default. If this pattern is repeated in other areas of twentieth century intellectual history, then it perhaps deserves more attention than it has received so far.

References

Josef L. Altholz, ‘The Church Quarterly Review, 1875-1900: a marked file and other sources’, Victorian Periodicals Review 17 (1.2), 1984, 52-7.

Adrian Bingham, ‘The digitization of newspaper archives: opportunities and challenges for historians’, Twentieth Century British History 21(2), 2010, 225-31.

Lara Putnam, ‘The trans-national and the text-searchable: digitised sources and the shadows they cast’, American Historical Review 121(2), 2016, 376-402.

SAGE publications, Press release from 2010 on the digitisation of Theology

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