If there’s a risk in the race to embrace all-things-digital, it’s that we forget the astonishingly rich material produced in the golden age of print magazines. Not so for former-MTV scriptwriter James Hyman, who first began collecting music magazines in the ’80s for research into popular culture.The tipping point from hobby to a more purposeful accumulation came in the early ’90s when Hyman saw an ad for Q’s entire back catalogue and bought it. Complete runs of other magazines followed, and as Hyman’s career progressed – DJ/producer and TV/radio presenter – so the collection began to evolve too, into an archive.
Fast forward to 2013, and the 50,000-plus collection (some two-thirds are UK titles) has entered the Guinness World Records as the largest of its kind. It’s beginning a new lease of life as a valuable reference tool, snapshot of an era, and case-in-point for the value of print in a digital age.
To reach the sitting room at Hyman’s London home, you have to walk along a corridor wholly lined on one side with magazines. The sofas are encircled by piles of publications. Large cupboard doors hang open to reveal yet more, with hundreds of obscure as well as more familiar publications amongst the 2,500-plus titles. The passion behind the collection is palpable, with Hyman, and now his wife and young son, living and breathing it on a daily basis.
The sheer volume of printed matter means that the collection has steadily been placed in storage over the years, as Hyman ran out of space. When Hyman and archivist and curator Tory Turk settled down to catalogue them all, they thought it would be a month’s work. It took nearly a year.
Their next aim is to digitise the entire collection, so that every article is instantly available. “We’d love to see it in a museum,” says Hyman, “with the digitising procedure as a living art installation while the process is happening: people wearing gloves in Perspex boxes, with real-time projections on the walls of what, being scanned. It would be amazing to use crowdsourcing to meta-tag the digitised collection. Someone might realise that they took that photo or they have a missing edition.”
“A lot of the magazines don’t know who took what photo or wrote that piece,” Turk explains, “so its about people reclaiming their history, and a little bit of glory, which has often been lost. Right now, that is more important than ever.”
The earliest editions are a couple of National Geographics from the 1920s. How do Hyman and Turk define popular culture and decide which publications to include? To Hyman, it’s not just about fashion, music and film, but goes deeper, into comic strips, creativity, art and more.
Adds Turk: “The artefacts of vintage National Geographies are part of popular culture, even though the content might not seem so in an obvious sense. They are iconic, and people love them.”
The archive is already making itself useful. It provided magazine research that ended up as a wall of quotes for the 2013 David Bowie is exhibition at the V&A, loaned a rare 1952 edition of the NME to the BBC (which even the NNE didn’t have). lent materials to Amazon, pop-up trainer exhibition, and provided copies to the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery for their recent Mods exhibition.
Hyman hopes that people who hear about the archive will contribute magazines to fill any gaps. “The Internet has holes,” says Turk. “Plus, it’s too easy online; anyone can publish anything. it’s about quality.”
“Exactly,” expands Hyman. “When you saw a copy of the NME, so many people worked on it; they really thought about it. Digital is so quick; I think there is more value in the effort that’s gone into printed material, which can’t be altered.”
Besides, he adds, “We still live in a physical world. There’s something special about printed matter you can hold. Magazines are organic, near human: they can get ripped, yellowed, stained, even die. I read a lot online, but I love the magazines.”
“It doesn’t matter that we don’t have every magazine ever,” asserts Turk. “Our remit is to preserve this golden era of magazines.” Watch this storage space.
WORDS: AMY DRON