ProQuest historical serials: caveat lector

2011 March 17

This is a follow-up to my recent post about Gayle Rubin’s critique of the digitized version of off our backs. (Off our backs is an important primary source for anyone who studies 1970s-1980s feminist movements in North America, especially the US.) A few hours after linking that post on Twitter, I got the following tweet:

Twitter item: @cliotropic Hello, we're listening! @Proquest and on Facebook. Have sent in the blog post for internal review. Thanks.

The next day, I got email from Bryan Benilous, who is the “market development manager for history and social sciences” at ProQuest. Bryan was very forthcoming in explaining why ProQuest’s digitized version of off our backs doesn’t contain letters to the editor. I don’t wish to be a mouthpiece for ProQuest, but I’ll quote his explanations here so that there’s as little chance of miscommunication as possible.

What I learned is illuminating not only for answering Gayle Rubin’s criticism about the off our backs archive, but it also sheds light on how older print materials end up in fulltext databases. Any researcher who uses ProQuest serials databases (and probably those from other vendors) should understand this.

Essentially, there are two ways that ProQuest makes data available for historic journals: ASCII text and full-page scans. As Bryan described it:

There are two main ways that content is delivered to ProQuest and other database publishers for distribution. The first is through “Full Text” ASCII efeeds – this is the straight text documents you see in most databases and are delivered electronically to us from the publisher. While it varies from publisher to publisher this ASCII content tends to only include the full text articles created specifically by the publisher and not contain additional content like letters to the editor, content from freelancers, wire services, or advertisements.

The second format is full page images in PDF format. This is more comprehensive and includes a full cover to cover representation of the publication in digital format and would include letters to the editor, advertisements and everything else in the printed version.

Every title on ProQuest has a section listing “Coverage Information”. Here’s the information for off our backs:

Full text coverage: Feb 27, 1970 (Volume 1, Issue 1) – 2008 (Volume 38, Issue 1)
Coverage Details
Full Text Formats

  • Full Text: Feb 27, 1970 (Volume 1, Issue 1) – 2008 (Volume 38, Issue 1)
  • Page Image: Oct 1997 (Volume 27, Issue 9) – 2008 (Volume 38, Issue 1)
  • Text+Graphics: Oct 1997 (Volume 27, Issue 9) – 2006 (Volume 36, Issue 1)

So, the editorial staff of off our backs provided ProQuest only with ASCII text for the 1970-1997 issues. (I’m guessing that they handed these issues of the publication off to transcriptionists, but I don’t know this for a fact.) Bryan’s comments:

While I am not entirely sure of the reasons for [the exclusion of letters to the editor from] this specific title, here are two general reasons why there is a difference:

  1. The publisher may not have the rights (or are not 100% sure they have the rights) to deliver the additional content
  2. The additional content was not retained by the publisher or is in a format that is not easily accessible to be delivered to ProQuest for distribution

For off our backs 1970-1997, the excluded material includes letters to the editor and advertisements. Similar concerns, as far as I can tell, are true of every historical serial in ProQuest’s databases, although some more than others. Bryan’s words again:

I would advise students that with any database if it is only providing ASCII text and there is not a link to a full image of the document then they may not be getting the full amount of content available from that publication. Another example is that some ASCII feeds also omit images, charts and graphs. Again, ProQuest works hard to get as much as available from the publisher but we are limited as to what is available from them and it varies widely from publisher to publisher.

The most comprehensive databases include the full page images and we do that for as much as we can, particularly with our Historical Newspapers and American Periodicals Series.

I haven’t explored ProQuest’s off our backs collection directly, since I don’t have access to it through my university library, but perhaps one of you does and can provide more information on what you can see and what you can’t.1

I have further comments on how ProQuest documents what’s in (and not in) its databases and how scholars should be responding, but I’ll save those for another post.

  1. Rubin’s citation, which she got from reading “crumbling newsprint,” is: “Letters to the Editor, off our backs 12, no. 7 (1982): Rubin, 24, Hollibaugh, 25, Walton, 25, Newton, 25, Doughty, 26; 12, no. 8 (1982): Ellen Willis,
    32, Joan Nestle, 32, Barbara Greer, 33; 12, no. 10 (1982): Samois, 26,
    Cleveland WAVAM, 26.” Perhaps you’d like to contribute to scholarship on the feminist sex wars by finding the newsprint and typing these letters up. If you do, please post a link below.
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