Alex Wright

A Scanner and a Mission

June 13, 2007

Paul Ford talks about digitizing the Harper's archive in this AIGA interview with David Barringer. I already knew Paul had more-or-less designed and built the whole thing himself, including the brilliantly idiosyncratic front end, but I never would have guessed that he actually scanned every page of the magazine's 150+ year run himself.

Harper's maintains an extraordinary index of every item ever published in the magazine, from the first issue in June 1850 through today. It took many people many years to create the index, but hardly anyone was using it. When I came to Harper's in February 2005 and began to explore the index, I realized we were 80 percent towards an online archive. We just needed to scan the issues and align the scans to the data.
Creating this archive is certainly the hardest thing I've ever doneā€”much harder than writing a novel, for instance. The trade for that work is that I have learned a great deal: about programming, about editing, about American history, about changing styles in prose and art, about typography, about the pagination of magazines in the 1920s.
What I have built is remarkably close to my vision: a massive, interlinked, searchable document that provides quick access to 157 continuous years of Harper's Magazine - something that will help researchers, appeal to readers (and thus to advertisers), and that will, hopefully, provide relevance and context in a web that is filled with hour-old news.
Since Paul was kind enough to blurb my book, I realize this may look like a case of literary logrolling ... but the truth is I've been a fan of Paul's work for a long time (that's why I approached him in the first place), and it's nice to see him getting some overdue plaudits.

File under: Informatics

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