Serendipity and the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon
Recently, I experienced something of a Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon. During her rousing talk at the Ghent-Kent Periodical Studies Workshop in the Fall of 2015 (our friends over at the the Lady’s Magazine Project have written about it in more detail here), Professor Laurel Brake reminded the assembled grad-studentry of the importance of serendipity in research – the happy and unexpected coincidence of finding something which is as good, or even better, than the thing which you set out to find in the first place. And – if you’re really very lucky – you will find both this unlooked-for gem and your initial research quarry, at the same time, and in the same place. A few of us nodded sagely, privately reminiscing about the time when an archive had smiled on us in this way.
A few weeks later, during a furious search for the perfectly fundable mot juste that would convince just about any funding body out there of the value of periodical research, I stumbled on this notion of serendipity again, this time in Paul Fyfe’s wonderful “Technologies of Serendipity,” which was published in the Digital Pedagogies special issue of Victorian Periodicals Review . It forms part of a spotlight report, entitled “Patrick Leary’s ‘Googling the Victorians’: Ten Years on” to which Professor Brake – most decidedly not coincidentally – also contributed. Fyfe’s piece reminds us that, a decade after “Googling the Victorians,” scholars now find themselves “deeper in the networked experience of such unexpected connections” (261). Not long afterwards, the truth of Fyfe’s statement manifested itself to me, and serendipity smiled on me.
One of our project’s current major goals is to have ISSN (International Standard Serial Number – similar to the perhaps more familiar ISBN or International Standard Book Number) assigned to each periodical in our database. ISSN are unique identifiers, which make them particularly helpful in a project like ours, as our international scope and focus on intellectual exchange tends to put us in the way of periodicals with identical titles, published at roughly the same time, with roughly the same content, but by different people, and in different places. We are, for example, fairly sure of five different periodicals named “De Vrouw” (“The Woman”) in the Low Countries which were all active in the opening decades of the twentieth century. ISSN are assigned by national centers, which as Wikipedia told me, are usually located at national libraries. As British periodicals make up the largest portion of our database so far, I contacted the people at the British Library to ask about retroactive assignment of ISSN to historical serials. The kind people at ISSN-UK were not only extremely helpful in working with us towards the assignment of ISSN to the British periodicals in our database, but they also made the introductions between us and the people at the ISSN International Center in Paris, who have agreed to work with us in developing a workflow for the retroactive assignment of ISSN to historical periodicals.
This exciting process is pending, awaiting the start of our PhD students in February and April, as their individual projects will determine which ISSN National Centers we’ll need to contact moving forward, and we’ll keep you posted on its progress. But its relevance to this post, and to Paul Fyfe’s “networked experience of such unexpected connections” is that it was the reason why Clément Oury, of the ISSN International Center, read my earlier post to this blog, on our need for a precise and controlled vocabulary to model the relationships between periodicals in our database. At the end of our meeting on all things ISSN, Clément alerted me to PRESSoo 1.0 – a draft version of a new “formal ontology intended to capture and represent the underlying semantics of bibliographic information about continuing resources, and more specifically about periodicals (journals, newspapers, magazines, etc.)” (7). In other words, PRESSoo will provide us with exactly the kind of stable and precise vocabulary that we need to make our project’s relational database more detailed, and thus, more interesting. Clément, it turned out, is the chair of the International Federation of Library Associations review group that is working to extend and maintain PRESSoo into the future. And so, serendipity.
Almost every class and property described in PRESSoo is highly useful to our project, particularly the ones pertaining to serials themselves – some are specifically concerned with serial preservation and storage metadata, and these are less relevant for us. Classes like “Z1 Serial Transformation,” “Z2 Absorption,” and “Z3 Separation” for example, give us very clear definitions of particular types of relationships between periodicals.
“Z1 Transformation,” for example, is defined as
[T]he idea of starting the publication of one or more than one new serial […] with a distinct intention of thus prolonging, under a new identity, one ore more than one earlier serial, the publication of which has ceased, either due directly to the transformation project, or for any other reason.(23)
This is different from both “Z2 Absorption” and “Z3 Separation” in that “they do not involve the combination of the disappearance of a serial and the appearance of another serial, but just either the latter or the former.” (23)
A merger (Y7/Y8), then, is an instance of transformation, whereby at least two periodicals disappear transform into one new serial, whereas an absorption (Y9/Y10) sees one periodical disappearing into another pre-existing periodical. Similarly, a split (Y5/Y6) is different from a separation (Y11/Y12), in that a split sees one periodical disappear into two (or more) new periodicals, while in a separation, both the pre-existing and the new periodical continue publication. PRESSoo, then, promises to be an invaluable tool, and one that I think periodical studies can and should adopt to describe the complexities of a periodical’s publishing history in a more precise and stable way.
 The success (or its opposite) of this undertaking is currently still “under review.”
 Paul Fyfe. “Technologies of Serendipity.” Victorian Periodicals Review 48.2 (Summer 2015): 261-66.
 Laurel Brake. “London Letter: Researching the Historical Press, Now and Here” Victorian Periodicals Review 48.2 (Summer 2015): 245-53.