Magazines in time

When magazines become digital their relationship to time is profoundly altered. Paradoxically their relationship with time and our experience of time changes because the magazines themselves, even with a complete archive, are relatively unchanged; they change much less than other forms of digital media in the transition to digital. Magazines in print, with their issue by issue publication pattern, are good at trapping time and when they are transformed into digital databases they store our culture in ways that make the past very accessible and reusable. In the 19th and 20th century, magazines, with their regular new issues, were ways of gaining and consuming current information. But digital magazines are becoming increasingly indispensable as ways of preserving current information so that it becomes part of our cultural record for the present and the future. Digital archives are tools for accessing the past even more than they are silos for preserving the back issues.

Librarians classify magazines, along with newspapers, annuals, weeklies, reviews, journals and proceedings as periodicals (and note all the temporal connotations we find in those classificatory terms) and they are extremely useful in a print culture because they are a source of predictable and locatable news. The latest issue of a magazine carries news, and the previous issues are quite likely to be discarded even if, by the keenest collectors, they will be kept, probably in an ordered stack or on a shelf, so that they can be consulted to remind us of what was news then.

Early issues of Opera shelved

Fifty years ago magazines were very good at bringing their subscribers news of the latest developments in a field of specialist interest: for example Opera. The current issue of the magazine would have been urgently awaited and it would, for many subscribers, have been a primary source of current information. However the back issues would be relatively inaccessible (indeed quite possibly stored in the attic if there were too many of them) and they would have been very hard to search, so the current issue was the main focus of attention. This is not how digital magazines now work. Very few opera lovers will today rely primarily on a monthly magazine for news. We have so many more instant resources: blogs, Twitter and social media, Operabase, Google search. YouTube, and all the forms of live broadcasting. Magazines were fast moving sources of news 50 years ago, now, by contrast, they are relatively slow moving and that turns out to be a good thing. For their reports and reviews may be more carefully published than too-fast digital news. Magazines that are careful with their reputation are perhaps trusted more than ever before; no longer fast, magazines are a slow-ish medium that commands the respect we give to reliable sources.

We noted that magazines as experienced fifty years ago were relatively inaccessible and barely searchable. But now a digital magazine with a databased archive is easily browse-able all the way through and down to the first issue. We can view the archive in the Exact Editions system at the top level by navigating an array of front covers:

The early issues of the Opera archive

or we can click through, by decade or year and then issue, into a page view of individual spreads:

The first pages of the first issue of Opera

This point and click interface to a complete archive of the magazine is incomparably easier for browsing and exploration than cartons full of 850 individual issues of the print magazine.

Not only is a digital magazine archive much more browse-able, it will surely be fully searchable:

Searching the Opera archive for Montserrat Caballé

The curious result is that magazines have been transformed from being a source of current information into a much deeper and long-lasting source of memory and record. The current issue, in 2019, will still be for many subscribers the ‘easy way in’ but the full archival database gives us something that a print resource cannot match. Digital magazines gradually acquire a cumulative authority, largely because they are a way of taking the past with us. We may not need them so much for the instant opinion, or the latest rumour, but they are rolling up our past and our present to make an ongoing record for our cultural present and for our enjoyment in the future. It is this potential for carefully archived magazine resources to become even more valuable and informative in an accumulation of content that should be one of the most exciting developments of the digital turn that all our media are now taking.

Taking our Opera example, we find that the Opera Twitter account is happily mining the riches of the archive to chime with present interests:

Commemorating the anniversary of a remarkable refugee composer Ernst Hermann Meyer.

The wonderful story of Freddie Mercury and Montserrat Caballé

Or simply reminding us of the greatest diva with a remembered front cover

When a Twitter account uses a historic archive to comment on new developments or to commemorate forgotten composers or unforgettable stars (Callas) it is reversing the normal role of the archive, which is no longer a mere repository of old news but is in course of becoming a source for new thoughts and new interpretations. The future of the past, and from the past, is one of the things we can expect from digital magazines, echoing  T S Eliot (Four Quartets):

Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.