A decade ago I was writing a book about the reception of Puccini in late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Italy. It was a project that was heavily reliant upon press sources: music journals, general cultural magazines and daily papers. This involved finding a library that held the relevant publication and trawling through old issues, either on microfilm or on paper. It was painstaking, sometimes tedious work, but since the libraries in question were often in cities like Milan, Florence and Rome I wasn’t complaining too much.
Ten years on I am undertaking another project (British in focus this time) that involves a lot of press sources. Nowadays many historic newspapers have been digitised, as have various journals, although not as many for the early twentieth century as for the nineteenth century. The benefits of digitised periodicals are numerous: so long as you have institutional access, either via a university or public library, digitised publications can save you an awful lot of time and travel.
Nevertheless, there are still times when I find myself drawn back to hard copy and more often than not my desk at the library is piled high with old journals, often big fat bound tomes or fragile looking bundles of papers tied together with string. Sometimes when a publication is available both digitally and in hard copy I will still choose the latter, depending upon what I want to find.
Using online newspapers works brilliantly when you want to find information about a specific person or a specific event: then the search terms can be narrowed down sufficiently to retrieve the desired information. Had the Italian newspapers been digitised a decade ago, I could have found the reviews of my Puccini premières in a few swift clicks. However, if you’re trying to build up a picture of a broader debate at a particular time, the potential to miss a lot of interesting material is enormous.
To take a case in point, I’ve recently flicked through an entire ten years’ worth of The Musical Times in hard copy. The Musical Times is also available in digitised format so this might seem perverse. However, reading articles in their original context allows you to ascertain the prominence they were given within the journal (how long was the article compared to others? Was it placed near the front or relegated to the back?) and to establish their relationship to other articles (and carefully placed advertisements) around them.
I have also stumbled across many interesting and useful things that a keyword search would never have brought up. Many of these are relevant to my current project; others are just of passing interest or amusement, but you never know what might come in handy for a future article. I was intrigued, for instance, to read about an orchestra that stormed the offices of an Italian newspaper in 1920 in protest at its critic’s review of the orchestra’s recent performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Such an incident might seem at first sight to be of only anecdotal interest but actually says something very interesting about the perceived power of the press at the time.
Other articles on non-operatic topics provide an insight into social change: an article in The Era, for instance, presented as startling news the fact that customers were beginning to demand fashions based on those they were seeing at the cinema. The small ads in this theatrical newspaper (“musicians wanted”; “musicians’ wants”) and the advertisements for intriguing sounding music hall and circus acts also help to build up a colourful picture of an era.
Reading old newspapers can undoubtedly be a slow and irritating business (literally so at times, provoking sneezes and itchy skin). But there is also something shiver-inducing about holding in your hands the very papers and magazines that an opera-goer from ninety years could have flicked through, in search of the latest listings and reviews.