Notes (and Queries) about adopting serials

The other night, Mary was researching the authorship of a memoir of the Battle of Waterloo, originally published under the by-line “An Englishwoman”. After searching online, she found a link to an article published in an 1871 issue of Notes and Queries that looked promising. She clicked the link– and immediately hit a paywall.

Which was frustrating on multiple levels. First, our library has already bought Notes and Queries several times over. We have print copies– for most years, multiple print copies– of all the volumes from the start of the journal in 1849 up to the present. We also buy access to the online edition. But the regular online access only goes back to 1996– before that, it seems you have to buy an extra package or pay per article.

Okay. But, second, we’re dealing with an article from 1871, long since passed into the public domain. Yes, the publisher has spent money to digitize and store these old issues, and would understandably like some return for its investment. But this is the sort of resource that, with all the mass digitization now going on, should really be free online in some form.

In fact, it is, if you can find it. High-profile mass digitization projects are scanning serial volumes along with books. So far, they’re not giving serials particular attention or care, but they’re there. In order to be really useful, these serial volumes need to be consciously adopted. There are a number of ways one can do this:

  • First, one can digitize them. I’ve found at least three projects that have digitized various volumes of N&Q: the Internet Library of Early Journals (ILEJ), the Open Content Alliance (OCA), and Google. The first of these digitized systematically, but only up to 1869. The latter two don’t seem to have been as systematic, but between then they managed to digitize nearly all the later volumes up to 1922.
  • To make particular issues easily findable, though, one needs to organize them. I got worked up enough to do that for N&Q; the results are here. Except for the ILEJ range, I had to do it volume by volume; the OCA and Google collections didn’t neatly arrange them, or make it easy to find a particular volume.
  • To make them easier to use, it also helps to transform them. Project Gutenberg’s Distributed Proofreaders, for instance, has taken the digitized page images of many of the early issues and produced transcriptions that are considerably more compact, easy to search, and textually accurate than their initial scan-and-OCR digitizations.
  • Researching their copyrights may enable more journal issues to be scanned. Google is very conservative about public domain copyright determinations, particularly abroad, sometimes locking up content as far back as 1865 to some users. The OCA scanners were confident enough to go all the way to 1922. It might be possible to go further still: I’ve discovered that Notes and Queries copyright were not renewed in the US. If post-1922 volumes were subject to US renewal requirements (which requires more research, into questions like whether US-based subscriptions counted as publication here) a number of them may now be out of copyright here.
  • But why stop with uncopyrighted material? Working with the authors of articles in the serial could yield still more. Notes and Queries, like many Oxford journals, appears to have a policy allowing author self-archiving of their articles, in this case once an issue’s been out for at least 2 years. So, conceivably, motivated readers could go through the tables of contents from issues for 2005 and before, try to reach authors, and persuade (or help them) to put the articles into their institutional or disciplinary repositories, assuming they have them. (And reader intervention could help; institutional repositories tend not to fill up on their own; and many libraries can’t or won’t commit the resources to fill them themselves.)

So, here are five ways one can adopt a serial: digitizing, organizing, transforming, copyright-clearing, and getting content from authors and rightsholders. There are some interesting examples of many of these adoption strategies: consider, for instance, the Directory of Open Access Journals; and here’s a big Wiki-page organizing online pre-1930 German-language serials.) And more can be done: for instance, if enough readers supporting open access adopt various journals that allow author self-archiving, we could see lots more current research content openly findable online.

Those, then, are my notes. My queries: What further serial adoption efforts should we know about? And what should we work on?

Author: John Mark Ockerbloom

I'm a digital library architect and planner at the University of Pennsylvania.