When I began the process of selecting a “key project” to study for this assignment, I knew I wanted to look at a project that involved periodicals. I had a faint notion, based on my knowledge of the Viral Texts project and a few others, that periodicals were vast and mostly untapped resources of literature, but, until I began searching, I wasn’t clear how this might relate to my interest in literary journalism.
Vol. I No. 1 of The Paper, Dec. 3, 1965
And then, I found “MiningThe Paper” (currently titled, simply, “The Paper”), a site by Peter Leonard of Yale University, which archives and makes accessible issues of the alternative student publication, The Paper. Created at Michigan State University by Michael Kindman in 1965, The Paper has been called “the first campus-based underground newspaper in American history.” The digital version of the paper, which I found via DHCommons, has great potential as a DH project, but it also appears to have many problems and limitations.
Anyways, that is what I thought, until I contacted Peter Leonard and asked him what plans he has for future development of the site. He shared with me his work-in-progress, which, at current, is not visible to the casual browser of the site (as such, I’m not sharing links to this portion of the site, until I have Leonard’s permission). As it seems there are now two versions of this evolving project, I will first describe what I found before contacting Leonard, and then move to what he shared with me.
The site itself is attractive, if sparse. It’s color palette is limited to black and white and in that, as well as in the bold but simple banner text, the site mirrors the look of the actual newspaper itself. This similarity is hard to miss, as the content of the site below the banner is a grid of images of The Paper’s front pages from December, 1965, to April, 1967. Additionally, sprinkled throughout are images of articles and flyers relating to The Paper. Each issue of the paper can be viewed and/or downloaded. The download link initiates a PDF download, and the view link takes the user to a Google Docs viewer where the full text of the newspaper is accessible and searchable in the browser.
While it is incredibly useful to have access to the full text of this revolutionary newspaper, that is about all one gets. That is to say, as far as the casual viewer is concerned, the site is just a repository for PDF files. There is limited search functionality via a Google search bar at the bottom of the page, which has been set to search only the PDF directory (Leonard, himself, described it as “sort of a hack”).
I have lost myself reading individual stories from several different issues of the paper — and I’m developing a working thesis about the roots of contemporary literary journalism in underground, and often student-produced papers such as this one — but in order for this project to be at all useful, it would have to be more than just a page with links. At the bottom of the site, there is a note stating that it is “a work in progress.” With that in mind, as I noted, I contacted Peter Leonard to inquire as to his plans to further develop the site.
And that is when things got interesting. Less than hour after I contacted Leonard, he wrote back to me. He informed me that he was nearly finished scanning additional issues of The Paper and told me that he actually had been working on a topic modeling feature. Leonard noted that he adapted the code for his site (and, while he was at it, the name) from Robert Nelson’s “Mining the Dispatch.”
On a “hidden” topics page, Leonard lists 10 topics including journalism, Vietnam, music, counter culture, and student government, among others. In his email, he noted that cultural criticism and student government topics seemed to have worked particularly well. So, too, I found, did the journalism category in which the self-conscious (and self-protective) nature of the paper is very much on display in its on-again, off-again letters to readers regarding its apparently tenuous relationship with the administration of MSU.
Suddenly, having been offered a glimpse into the future of “Mining the Paper,” I see great potential for what this project will become, and what it can offer to future projects that are like it. That is, by utilizing the excellent work of Robert Nelson on “Mining the Dispatch,” Leonard exhibits the kind of community building that DH seems to thrive on. Additionally, Leonard wrote that he may try to run Ben Schmidt’s Bookworm on the data, but noted that it might not be so useful given the short timeframe, and thus limited quantity, of the data.
I can see The Paper becoming an important resource for scholars from a variety of disciplines, spanning history, journalism, and English literature. Of course, the 1960s were a tumultuous time in the United States, and The Paper is an important primary source with much to offer. I feel strongly that sites like The Paper and, presumably, other similar resources would prove eminently useful in uncovering some excellent and important examples of mid-20th century literary journalism. And, as noted above, I am eager to dive in and see if I can’t infer a relationship between the creative acts of journalism happening at places like MSU and the popularity of “New Journalism” in the 1960s.
Leonard’s work-in-progress models what is most exciting to me about the Digital Humanities. The collegial nature of his process, both in working from Nelson’s code and then in his willingness to share his work with me, the in-progress aspect, and, perhaps most importantly, the opportunity to uncover important documents that might otherwise have been lost.
In closing his initial email to me, Peter Leonard asked — just out of curiosity, he noted — whether I had known about The Paper prior to discovering his site. I told him that I had not. I get the sense that this is a large part of why he created it.