What makes a meme? This ques­tion has sparked human curiosity for cen­turies, but only recently have com­puter sci­en­tists devel­oped the tools to begin answering it. By scan­ning enor­mous data sets of dig­i­tized infor­ma­tion, researchers can now iden­tify rep­e­ti­tion in the global con­ver­sa­tion, uncov­ering the fea­tures of media ranging from viral videos to out­ra­geously pop­ular blog posts.

But the tools at researchers’ dis­posal aren’t lim­ited to inves­ti­ga­tions of our present media con­sump­tion. In the 19th cen­tury, before modern copy­right laws were in place, article reprinting was wide­spread and socially accept­able. “It was kind of the wild west of pub­lishing,” said Ryan Cordell, an assis­tant pro­fessor of Eng­lish who is a member of the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Net­works. He is col­lab­o­rating with com­puter and infor­ma­tion sci­ences assis­tant pro­fessor David Smith to study the texts of that era. “One reason I’m inter­ested in that period is that in many ways it’s anal­o­gous to the present day.”

With local, state, and fed­eral ini­tia­tives to dig­i­tize his­tor­ical texts—including classic novels and small town news­pa­pers alike—the work of detecting the most pop­ular cul­tural ele­ments of an era can be extended well into the past.

Cordell was recently named one of 20 mem­bers of the inau­gural class of Andrew W. Mellow Fel­low­ship Scholars in Crit­ical Bib­li­og­raphy, a pro­gram housed at the Uni­ver­sity of Virginia’s renowned Rare Book School. The pro­gram aims to pro­vide young scholars with hands-​​on instruc­tion in inter­preting the mate­rial forms of tex­tual arti­facts, from medieval man­u­scripts and early Amer­ican hand-​​press books to born-​​digital materials.

Part of why I’m excited about this fel­low­ship is a lot of my work tends to take place in these dig­ital archives, these large scale repos­i­to­ries we have of his­tor­ical texts,” Cordell said, noting that his research bridges a gap between tra­di­tional and new media investigations.

Once the news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, pam­phlets, and novels are trans­lated into zeros and ones, Cordell and Smith develop algo­rithms to comb through the entire data­base. “It breaks all of that text down into little chunks—five-word chunks, 10-​​word chunks—and looks for repeated strings of texts,” said Cordell. If the algo­rithm finds these chunks repeated sev­eral times, the researchers can be fairly con­fi­dent the text was reprinted, and thus of cul­tural sig­nif­i­cance at the time.

So far, one of the most sur­prising find­ings has been evi­dence of wide reprinting of “quasi-​​truthful anec­dotes,” as Cordell put it. These were arti­facts ranging from a poten­tially fic­tional letter from a wife to her dying hus­band or an alcoholic’s story of reli­gious sal­va­tion and reform. “What we’re finding in this study is that seems to have been an incred­ibly pop­ular genre in the 19th cen­tury,” said Cordell.

Whether it’s an anec­dote, a poem, or a pres­i­den­tial speech, finding the rep­e­ti­tions in printed media can lend insight into the people and values of the day. “My next incli­na­tion as a scholar of the period,” said Cordell, “is to ask why. What’s going on? What do these texts tell us about the people who wrote them and read them and wanted to pass them on? That part of the research is really just beginning.”

The next step, he said, is to figure out what they tell us about culture.