Data-Mining Olomeinu Magazines

Over the past few months, I’ve gone down a rabbit hole that’s hard to dig myself out of – and I don’t particularly want to.

My dissertation is about Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) children’s literature, with a focus on the decades of 1980-2000. My initial idea was that I would focus on four publishers (Artscroll-Mesorah, Feldheim, Hachai, and CIS), and I would study the children’s and teens’ books they published during those two decades. I knew I wanted to include analysis of schools and educational settings as well, but the main focus was going to be on the books.

Then I read more, and even more, and things shifted slightly, and then again – and before I knew it I was more focused on literacy and the world of the Haredi child reader during these decades.

My intended brief look at Olomeinu magazines turned into a full-blown intense study, as I uncovered and discovered more and more fascinating details about the magazine, its connections to various religious and literary factors, and the people involved in running it from 1960 onward.

So while I’ve continued to read about things like portrayal of the Holocaust in children’s literature, character focalization in children’s literature, history textbooks across the world, etc. – I’ve also been doing lots of intense study of the Olomeinu magazine.

I’m more focused now on discourse analysis. To that end, I’ve been gathering data in a spreadsheet, noting as much information as I can about each issue. The more I work with the magazine issues, the more I notice details I should have been noting all along – which means eventually I’ll do a second and third run over all these, making sure I have all the info I need from each issue. Meanwhile, here’s my working document:

screenshot of an Excel sheet showing data for individual issues of Olomeinu magazine
[yellow rows note issues I’ve cataloged but have not yet scanned; blue denotes issues I have PDFs of but haven’t yet cataloged; green denotes issues both cataloged and scanned/downloaded]

Despite its messiness and clunkiness, this spreadsheet is a major improvement from what I had been doing before. At first, I was trying to track features across issues, so I had columns labeled with recurring features like “Mommy’s Favorite Stories” and “Mitzvah of the Month.”

two-page spread, with “Mommy’s Favorite Stories” on the left side (December / Teves 1999)
two-page spread, with “Mitzvah of the Month” on the left side (February / Adar 1976)

That proved to be cumbersome and impossible, because new features were constantly being introduced from year to year, and some features had their names tweaked over the decades – and that is important to consider in my study!

So I switched to simply documenting the features of each issue, leaving the patterns for later. My next step – which I haven’t figured out exactly how to do yet – is to tag each feature with topics. I want to track topics like the Holocaust, Israel, and chagim. I also want to track their sub-topics: how many pieces on the Holocaust focus on faith, Nazi brutality, Jewish suffering, etc., for example? Is there a trend over the decades?

Another aspect of my examination will be on a more granular level. I started working with issues I was able to download from chinuch.org, and supplemented that with a collection lent to me by a friend. I scanned all the issues I had in physical copies (I still don’t have a complete set!) and ran them through OCR so that I could copy the text over into various other documents. Again, I’m not entirely sure yet how I’ll accomplish this next bit, but I want to think about the words used in each issue, each year, each decade…

I started playing around with this using a word cloud program (partly for fun, partly to motivate me to finish the tedious task of cataloging all the individual issues). I just pasted the text – minus Hebrew words – into the program. That means that words like “Olomeinu” (which appears at the bottom of every page) are over-represented. When it’s time to do this “for real,” I’ll clean the text before running it through a program. Some basic results:

word cloud created from the text of the February / Adar 1976 issue of Olomeinu
word cloud created from the text of the January / Teves 1977 issue of Olomeinu

I’m far from done, and I’m of course considering the historical contexts in addition to this granular examination. But I’m excited about the insights this level of analysis will yield! (Also, I get to play with cool toys 😉)

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