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Reading the Modern Magazine in an Interdisciplinary Humanities Lab

A Provocation

This essay cluster begins with an ending. Specifically, it began with the ending of Patrick Collier’s “What Is Modern Periodical Studies?,” which concludes with a provocation to find a new way to read and study modern periodicals. In order to develop coherent methodological approaches to modern periodicals, Collier argues, we need to resist the urge to “decid[e] in advance where [a] periodical’s value lies.” Instead, he urges us to “start with only one assumption: that the periodical is valuable simply because it exists—because it once performed some desirable functions for some number of people—and set as our first conceptual task reaching some hypotheses on what those functions were.”[1] The seeming simplicity of this provocation—read without having deciding the value of what you’re reading in advance—belies its theoretical and methodological complexity. If modern periodicals are best known for the sheer size and heterogeneity of their archives, then an approach that provides no framing in advance, no specific path for navigating that archival scope, is daunting to say the least.

And yet Collier’s provocation spoke to us as the answer to another important question: how do you convince scholars of modern print culture to look at an archive as banal as The Western Home Monthly?[2] This magazine (henceforth referred to as the WHM) was digitized between 2014 and 2016 as part of a collaborative project between the Editing Modernism in Canada Project and the University of Alberta Libraries; this project, known as Modern Magazine Project Canada, culminated in, amongst other outcomes, a fully digitized, meta-data rich version of the WHM hosted on Peel’s Prairie Provinces. And yet, beyond bringing this magazine to the attention of renowned scholar of the Canadian middlebrow Faye Hammill, this project didn’t seem to increase the uptake of the WHM. Our hypothesis was simple: people weren’t reading this magazine because they thought they already knew what they would find in it.

It isn’t hard to see why. Published out of Winnipeg, Manitoba between 1899 and 1932 (at which point it moved offices to Toronto and was renamed The National Home Monthly), the WHM smacks of the regional and the generic. Indeed, one well-regarded scholar of little magazines once jokingly referred to it as “tractor modernism.”[3] More accurately, the magazine is middlebrow, or perhaps mainstream, with some of the traces of modernism and modernity one might expect in the pages of a mainstream and middlebrow magazine. As Hammill and Michelle Smith point out:

[T]he middlebrow [is] a mode of circulation, reception, and consumption and cultural products, and . . . a space where high and popular culture meet, and where art encounters consumerism. . . . [Middlebrow magazines] publish, sell, or comment on products from opera to romance fiction, haute couture originals to department store bargains.[4]

Helpfully, Hammill and Smith remind us that the middlebrow is more aptly thought of as a mode of mediating and circulating a wide range of cultural artefacts, many of which may be categorized as modernist, many more as modern. At the same time, this definition leaves us, as scholars approaching the WHM, in the same position: grappling with an archive consisting of “more than 56,000 advertisements, 33,000 illustrations, 24,000 pages and 33,000,000 words” that allows for neither easy categorization nor outright dismissal.[5]

The challenges we were presented with were, first, how to bring scholars to this archive at all—as Jean Lutes points out, “readers rarely seek out texts unless they already have frameworks for reading them”—and second, how to bring scholars to this archive without their readings being so entirely disciplinary- and methodology-specific that they failed to speak to one another.[6] James Mussell makes this point about historical readers, warning against assuming that “the object that constituted the periodical was . . . identical with the printed material in [readers’] hands,” but we would do well to apply that warning to contemporary readers as well.[7] And yet, Mussell also points to the “repetitive formal framework[s]” that give material reality to magazines’ identities, and how readers encounter them (“Repetition,” 348). The difficulty of discussing periodicals coherently may have “led to a fragmentation and multiplication of methodological approaches,” but that doesn’t rule out the possibility of “a shared set of theoretical and methodological principles [that] would benefit the study of periodicals as a whole, if only to provide a common point of departure.”[8] But what might such a shared starting point be?

Building a Lab, Or, if You Build It…

An experiment, of sorts, was necessary to address these questions. To determine what common principles and departure points might guide the study of periodicals, we needed to summon scholars from across the disciplines to undertake a self-conscious, process-oriented “dive” into the same periodical, and the very neglect that had hitherto attended the WHM made it an ideal testing ground. Interestingly, we had more difficulty securing the journal space to host such an unusual (and innovative) experiment than we did finding scholars willing to take on the daunting task of reading and playing with a substantial archive based on an unfamiliar object. In fact, we had far more proposals from around the world to join this project than the Modernism/modernity Print Plus cluster structure would allow for, a testament (we think) to a keen interest in collaborative research models and questions of methodology, but also (it turns out) to the broad, international relevance of this rural Canadian periodical.

Our project took inspiration from Sean Latham and Robert Scholes’s proposal for the creation of “humanities labs,” a collaborative network of researchers who could “lend their collective expertise to textual objects that would otherwise overwhelm single scholars.”[9] As periodical scholars have long noted, magazines are heterogeneous assemblages of visual and textual editorial and commercial material. Hence, to read and make sense of not just their form and content, but their repetitive structures, their changes over time, and even the very paper they are printed upon, demands “a diverse set of competencies” (Latham and Scholes, “The Rise of Periodical Studies,” 529). In short, the study of such objects is necessarily an interdisciplinary affair, and in our “lab” we were fortunate to assemble an international group of scholars from a wide range of specialties and disciplines. Matthew Philpotts’s expertise in German Studies and Periodical Studies provides an unusual inroad into an unfamiliar English-language periodical: experimenting with ways to measure and visualise periodical “texture,” he uncovers how the WHM’s patterns could be linked to affective reader responses. Philpotts’s discovery of the substantial and stable role of advertising in the WHM sheds light on why other scholars from other disciplines like Shawna McDermott, from Childhood Studies, and Anouk Lang, from Digital Humanities, also find themselves immersed in the magazine’s commercial content. For McDermott, advertisements are home to various conflicting discourses of childhood, whereas for Lang’s computational analysis of the WHM, the frequency of place names in advertisements created signals that threatened to “overpower” those produced by non-commercial content and thus skewed her attempts to trace geospatial imaginaries and relationships. From English, Victoria Kuttainen issues a challenge to the rural “tractor modernism” reputation of the WHM when she arrives at a consideration of the Modern Girl as a heuristic device that she lets guide her through various modes of reading. Like Kuttainen, Rachael Alexander specializes in comparative literary projects, and by comparing the WHM to the Canadian Home Journal she not only demonstrates how quantitative content analysis can be undertaken in comparative frameworks for both editorial and commercial content, but also highlights how such work necessitates unruly and imperfect “compromises.”

Our “lab” was also fortunate enough to attract the attention and work of illustrator and Illustration Studies scholar Jaleen Grove, whose inquisitive and gorgeously illustrated exploration of the WHM provides one of the most visually rich and creative interventions ever published about a Canadian magazine. Finally, in perhaps the most literal manifestation of this cluster’s collaborative ethos, graduate students from modern periodical scholar Barbara Green’s seminar at Notre Dame on print culture and modernity self-consciously adopted the “humanities lab” model in their own work: Trish Bedar, Shinjini Chattopadhyay, Kurt McGee, Anton Pavzner, and Moonseok Choi not only add valuable layers to this already-multipronged interdisciplinary approach, but offer a framework for meeting the challenges of how to run such a lab in a pedagogical setting.

Assembling these scholars in our “lab” meant that we recognized their disciplinary strengths and what methodological interventions they proposed, but, crucially, neither they nor ourselves knew what practices and findings would materialized in the process. Emphasizing inquisitiveness, the lab was thus guided by two open-ended questions:

  • How do I read this?
  • What is it?

The order of these questions was both intentional and crucial. If we are to resist, as Collier wisely advises, reading practices that bring “pre-existing critical categories”  to bear on periodicals (practices which determine in advance what use and meaning the periodical has, and put it to work in service of some other interest), then we must resist the urge to ask “what is it?” before we read it (“What is Modern Periodical Studies?,” 92). We must read first and allow the object to emerge. Each of our contributors thus brought their own expertise and reading models to bear on the WHM—not in service of finding but, rather, of discovering.

One of the first questions of reading—especially reading an archive of this scale—is where to begin. The scope of methodological approaches is, perhaps, most markedly felt when we note the diversity of “starting points” across this project. If a reading begins, as Grove’s did, with a handful of hard copies of The Western Home Monthly, then the issues available (in this case, October 1926 to September 1932) create a dramatically different answer to “what is it?” than would distant reading the full digitized corpus. If one approach offers a closer approximation of how the individual historical reader might have experienced the text, as Lang points out algorithmic readings have an extraordinary capacity to bring insights and patterns into focus that might otherwise be lost in a corpus too large for a single researcher. When a reading begins with a strategy—carving out a particular year for consideration as Alexander does (1922), or a question, as McDermott does, or a deadline, as the Notre Dame team does—these beginnings shape but don’t necessarily predict where the exploration will go and what it will find. There is trial, there is error, and there are red herrings, as Kuttainen discovers.

Contributors’ strategies for moving through this archive were fascinating as much for their differences as their similarities: where Grove intentionally seeks out the holiday months, Alexander purposefully works around them; where commercial content becomes a rich site of discovery for many of the contributors, for Lang, it had to be parsed from consideration. Indeed, even when contributors took similar approaches, they sometimes arrived at different conclusions. For example, Chattopadhyay and Povzner, of the Notre Dame team, produce quite a different image of gender in the magazine through topic modelling than Lang does through word embedding models. The former revealed a “consistent prominence of masculine over feminine inflection in narrative content (categorized by explicitly gendered words),” where the latter indicated that “words gendered male are also far fewer in number than those gendered female, which is an indication of the fact that more of the words in the corpus cluster closer to she than to he.” Interesting research questions emerge from how these different methods offer different lenses on the gendered discourses of the magazine.

Conversely, some contributors using markedly different methodologies arrived at a similar conclusion with regards to the gendered audience of the magazine: it was not a women’s magazine. Through her reading of mastheads, Grove argues that the magazine was not targeted exclusively toward women, while McDermott demonstrates how the magazine hails the whole family, including the children. By comparing the WHM with the Canadian Home Journal, Alexander determines that while the WHM marketed itself to families, often through women as consumers, it was “less explicitly feminine.” In revisiting this cluster as a whole, as editors we are struck by how much more potential exists for comparative and collaborative across contributions. What, we wonder, would have been possible if we could have built the kind of humanities lab that the Notre Dame team describes, in which contributors could have read one other’s work, benefitted from one other’s observations, and even met on a regular basis? How might Kuttainen have responded to seeing Philpotts’s visualization of cover art, with the marked shift to the Modern Girl in the 1920s, for example, or how would have Alexander’s interest in the differing spatial imaginations of WHM and CHJ been enriched by Lang’s map visualizations of how the magazine was thinking about space? Periodical readings become richer the more interdisciplinary and collaborative they are, and where a reader of this cluster might recognize what seem like irreconcilable differences of methodology or conclusions, we see potential for further cross-disciplinary conversations.

And yet, through the diversity of these approaches and their sometimes striking contradictions, a common reading practice emerged, suggestive of a structuring principle of periodical methodologies. That practice was to read in different ways at different times. It is a deceptively simple pronouncement, but it’s a practice that not only demands flexibility and fluidity, but also acknowledges and adapts to the internal complexity of the periodical and the oft-times unwieldiness of the archives we are reading. Amongst our contributors, the practice of “surface reading” (a means of moving through vast archives to read for patterns) was frequently paired with close reading practices, but other reading practices emerged from other methodologies.[10] Keyword searching and statistical readings of digital archives, for example, might be complemented (or set in tension) by close reading, surface reading, or readings that focus on affect, textures or materiality. Reading, for some contributors, also became an embodied encounter where physical engagements with and responses to the magazine were acknowledged as not just an inevitable part of research but valuable methodologies in themselves. While scholars of print culture have advised multiple reading approaches before, the specificity of their methodological practices obscures the larger point: reading periodicals is a process predicated on movement between reading strategies and methodologies. Reading is both dynamic and a process, and this has a pronounced effect on the object under study: as we revisit periodicals, and revise our readings and reading strategies, the presumed autonomy and stability of the archive is revealed to be a fiction. The periodical is not static but malleable and responsive to how we read it, what we do with it, and what we ask of it. Indeed, as Mussell once observed, “it is what we do with the objects that produces their material effects.”[11] These effects were exacerbated by the fact that our contributors did not just read and do different things with the WHM, but many did not even use the same archive.

The archive we initially offered our contributors, hosted on Peel’s Prairie Provinces, consists of standard-resolution .png files with searchable (but not selectable) OCR text. If a researcher wants to search for authors or key words in the magazine, or flip through pages looking for particular illustrations, they can readily do so. Behind that web-based interface, however, is a digital archive of METS and ALTO files dense with metadata, as well as the raw and uncorrected OCR and much higher resolution .tiff image files. We made these files available to contributors, like Lang, who were doing data-intensive digital humanities explorations. Of course, that rich digital archive is itself a remediation of the original print magazine—in this case of the near-complete run held at the Manitoba Legislative Library in Winnipeg. Grove’s insistence on working from print copies highlights what data is lost in the process of digitization—page weight, gloss of finish, yellowing of pages—while Lang’s study shows us what is gained. And it would be impossible to bring these different perspectives on the magazine together if these contributors weren’t, to some meaningful degree, working with different magazines.

When we discuss a magazine being a different text for different readers, in some ways we are speaking symbolically: the content and form remain the same, while the reader’s unique positionality enters into conversation with and transforms the artefact. However in the case of our contributors’ encounters with the digitized WHM, the difference of their archives became more than symbolic. The digitized WHM archive is not the print Western Home Monthly, nor is a Dropbox folder of files the same as the Peel’s Prairie Provinces interface. This not-sameness is material and real. But even the practice of archiving a physical copy of a magazine transforms it, and not just when archives strip away covers and bind multiple issues into volumes; as Mussell writes: “Libraries and archives do not provide unmediated access to the past. Not only are historical materials necessarily shaped by their preservation, but they also exist in new sets of relationships, suggested by catalogues, shelving configurations, and the expertise of librarians and archivists” (“Repetition,” 353). To claim that the print copy is more proximate to the real than the digital copy, then, is to ignore that they are both inevitably mediated representations of a history that we can study and attempt to reconstruct, but can never fully inhabit. Thus, the material differences between the archives our contributors studied reminds us that print and digital archives of historical periodicals are all representations and mediations of an origin that is only ever being produced by scholarly interventions, rather than rediscovered or exposed by them.   

While the platforms, structures, and affordances of archives structure how one accesses and reads the periodical, and the various methodological approaches of the contributors further diversified the range and complexity of reading strategies, the result of such multiple, mobile, and malleable reading practices produced what we think constitutes another key principle of periodical research. That is, however the reading is undertaken, the result always produces new structures, formations, juxtapositions, and relationships between the constituent parts of the periodical. Whether “cherry-picking” one’s examples, following an issue through as though it were a novel (page by page in linear fashion), or harvesting data from discrete points across a digital corpus, these readings gives us new ways (and things) to see. Moreover, there is a strong impulse to visualize what this reading reveals: whether through graphs or charts, images, visual essays, or logbooks of illustrations, our contributors are all keen to literally share what they have found even when what they have found are holes in the archive (see, for example, figures 4 and 5 in Philpotts’s contribution). The result is that scholars produce work that is, fittingly, not unlike what they study: visually engaging and (somewhat) heterogeneous assemblages of text and visuals that enable new relationships between constituent parts to emerge.

In the context of the self-reflexive, work-in-progress model we encouraged our contributors to take up, the question “How do I read this?” importantly makes room for reflecting on the conditions of reading, particularly those physical, psychological, and emotional conditions that are often elided in scholarship. It is, indeed, striking how many contributors openly registered some form of affect—often discomfort and anxiety—about their research either directly in their papers or in communications with us. To read magazines is, as Kuttainen reminds us, “to enter profound disorientation”; to read an unknown magazine with no map, no destination in mind, and few certainties about how to orient oneself is potentially terrifying, frustrating, and (we hope) liberating. For the Notre Dame students, whose project unfolded as part of a graduate seminar, the additional pressures wrought by a semester-long time frame and the necessity of not just doing but producing, can be felt in their accounts of “struggle[s]” and “obstacle[s].” As the weeks elapsed, they write, a “sense of purposelessness crept in.” While we would never want to add to (or celebrate) those conditions that make graduate student life more difficult than it already is, it’s worth noting that this very sense of purposelessness marks a framework of open-ended discovery. While closed forms of exploration see wrong turns as wasted time because they are goal-oriented, the absence of a pre-determined arrival point transforms ‘trial and error’ into discovery and, importantly, play. Play allows for accidents, wit, whim, and, as Grove points out, even goofiness; it allows projects to not only take unusual and idiosyncratic directions, but to potentially embody and reflect the particular researcher at the helm. The humanities lab, we humbly suggest, must necessarily be exploratory rather than problem-solving.

Outside the Box: WHM and Modernist Studies

If play and exploration are the structuring principles of how we answer the question “How do I read this?” then these have a significant impact on how we answer that second question, “What is it?” That is, what it is will be determined in large part by how we play with it. We are reminded of the simple cardboard box—a means to hold various things, for sure, but in the right hands and in the spirit of play, the box can become a vehicle, a home, target-practice, and so on. As Mussell has also recognized, “different uses produce different objects” (“The Matter with Media,” 6). Like the box, the modern magazine (and, indeed, the periodical in general) is not just a container, but a material object to be approached as an imaginative interface; as a digital archive (a Dropbox, if you will), it is a coded infrastructure that can be manipulated and reconfigured. We are limited only by our imaginations and the tools at our disposal (and our knowledge of how to use these tools).

So what kind of “box” is the WHM? Taken together, the work of our contributors reveals that it is visually compelling: one wants to look at it and there is much to see. Some of the most fascinating visuals arise from its commercial interests and applications, and compelling editorial visual features are frequently structural and repetitive: mastheads and covers. Contributors were also fascinated by idiosyncratic moments where image and text did not support each other but created different, even contradictory, impressions. It is a testament to the richness and complexity of the visual elements of the WHM that so many of the scholars here embraced the challenge of working with visual materials even while they admitted that to do so was to stretch beyond their disciplinary experience. Indeed, the WHM is paradoxically intimidating in its magnitude and complexity, and yet inviting and seemingly manageable because of its humble provenance as a rural Canadian publication. The WHM’s approachability (or its critical rejection) is predicated to a large degree on the assumption that it will offer nothing new, surprising, or difficult; however, our contributors demonstrate that this is not, in fact, entirely true, and their readings yield rich and surprising findings. What, then, is the WHM to the readers of Modernism/modernity? It is more than a resource (although we encourage everyone to look and see how the periodical intersects with your own research interests), but an instrument of modernity. Like modernism, this periodical both responded to and shaped what modernity looked and felt like for its readers. It is a reminder that high modernism is only one of many such responses to modernity and the “tractor modernism” of the WHM is another. Let us not forget that the tractor revolutionized the practices of production and consumption in a mass age, while also serving as a primary tool of settler colonialism in the North American prairies. The tractor also signaled the labour of a new immigrant workforce in the 1920s, and a non-metropolitan engagement with modernity that, as Collier and James J. Connolly have pointed out, is too often left out of our histories of modern print culture.[12] The pages of the WHM—both in terms of their content but also their material production—contain the signs, symbols, and effects of how a particular corner of the world negotiated the economic, social, cultural and technological conditions and challenges of modernity. And we think they deserve a closer look.

Tractioneers Ltd Advertisement, Western Home Monthly, January 1920, 30.
Fig. 1. Tractioneers Ltd Advertisement, Western Home Monthly, January 1920, 30.


[1] Patrick Collier, “What is Modern Periodical Studies?” Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 6, no. 2 (2015): 92–111, 109.

[2] For a more extensive theorization of the banality of this archive and the logics of archival recovery, see Hannah McGregor, “Digitizing the Banal: The Politics of Recovery in Periodical Studies,” Studies in Canadian Literature 42, no. 2 (2017): 256–80.

[3] We’re not saying who.

[4] Faye Hammill and Michelle Smith, Magazines, Travel, and Middlebrow Culture: Canadian Periodicals in English and French 1925–1960 (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2015), 10.

[5] Hannah McGregor and Nicholas van Orden, “Remediation and the Development of Modernist
Forms in The Western Home Monthly,” in Reading Modernism with Machines: Digital Humanities and Modernist Literature, ed. Shawna Ross and James O’Sullivan (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), 135–164, 143.

[6] Quoted in Sean Latham, “The Mess and Muddle of Modernism: The Modernist Journals Project and Modern Periodical Studies,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 30, no. 2 (2011): 407–428, 425.

[7] James Mussell, “Repetition: Or, ‘In Our Last,’” Victorian Periodicals Review 48, no. 3 (2015): 343–358, 348.

[8] Hannah McGregor, “Remediation as reading: digitising The Western Home Monthly,” Archives and Manuscripts 43, no. 3 (2014): 248–257, 250–51.

[9] Sean Latham and Robert Scholes, “The Rise of Periodical Studies,” PMLA 121, no. 2 (2006): 530.

[10] Periodical studies is much indebted to Margaret Cohen’s development of surface reading. See Margaret Cohen, “Narratology in the Archive of Literature,” Representations 108, no.1 (2009): 51–75.

[11] James Mussell, “The Matter with Media,” Paper presented at the Modern Language Association Annual Convention, Boston, MA, January 2013, 5.

[12] Patrick Collier and James J. Connolly, introduction to Print Culture Histories beyond the Metropolis (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2016): 3–28, 7.