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Prophesying War: Digital Archives

In my case study of Le Queux's novels, the fundamental issue I am analyzing is in what form fear existed in pre-1914 Britain. (Specifically from 1895-1906/9; I am undecided on the time frame.) Although my research is in its infancy, so far it seems that fear acted as a sort of dialectic: external factors created fear of war in Britain which was in turn used by popular fiction writers like Le Queux to advance personal and political aims. No aspect of fear existed on its own - existing fear was used to create fear and so on. This is how and, intangibly, where Le Queux prophecized future war.

As I posted last week, such a study benefits from the use of digital tools. Last week I explored preliminary findings from several of Le Queux's novels that interestingly presented information that was validated after the fact by other sources. Although I may not choose to look at fear of spies (as that was a later phenomena), I nevertheless noted the use of the word "man" as a generic term to denote the unknown enemy. It was only later through secondar source research that I discovered that this fear of the unknown was very real in Britain during the early years of the Great War. Now if a simple textual analysis can validate historiographical evidences, what does that mean for a deeper study by way of digital history? By this I do not simply mean Voyant tools, an integral tool for my research purposes. I am referring to the wealth of archives as well, specifically news publications.

Newspapers are a key aspect to understanding the past in its contingency. Not to underscore the wealth of knoweldge and understanding from oral or written (autobiographical, for instance) traditions for the study of memory, but newspapers are in-themselves concrete in what they present: we absolutely perceive their layout, articles, opinions, etc. differently, specifically in historical use. However, they are not subject to retrospectivity in-themselves, in the time they were printed. Thus, historians can use them to challenge intuitive/acquired knowledge about a subject or an issue.

With the digitization of newspapers, historians now have incredible access (if, of course, you have a subscription) to archival newspapers. We can parse through and search years upon years of newspapers that would have in pre-digital times mostly gone unnoticed. Furthermore, I can personally use these sources to advance my own understanding. To preface with an example, in The Scaremongers, historian Anthony Morris shows that Le Queux's famous 1906 novel Invasion of 1910 originally went to the editor describing the enemy's invasion path throughout the book without specific reference to any actual place in Britain. However, Lord Northcliffe, Le Queux's friend and ally, had him rewrite the novel so that the fictional invasion route went through towns where his newspaper, the Daily Mail, were sold. Not only does this raise interesting questions about the usage and simultaneous cretion of fear (in this case, to sell newspapers), but it instigates an investigation into the newspaper during the period under review. For popular fiction was aimed towards the working and lower-middle classes. And the Daily Mail was read widely by these literate masses.

The knowledge is there. We can approach it any such way. Historically, we ought to approach these studies with the best tools we have (not absolutely). Digital archives and text analysis tools, etc. are integral to such an approach.


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