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Stevenson Lecture 2024

'The Scissors, the Paste-Pot, & the Large Language Model'


The nineteenth-century newspaper was eclectic and far-reaching: a miscellany of news, entertainment, art, science, opinion, and practical advice. It was also a medium founded on unoriginal writing, as editors composed their papers substantially through the reprinting of material from other newspapers. In the United States, such textual recycling was neither incidental nor covert, but directly supported by both custom and law. Drawing on our extended study of the "exchange system" in the Viral Texts project (, this lecture will ask how this history of unoriginal writing might inform our understanding of—and responses to—the newest technology of unoriginal writing, large language models (LLMs), such as ChatGPT. While scissors and paste have been replaced by algorithmic recombination, nineteenth-century newspapers share with LLMs qualities of collage and pastiche, as well as concerns about veracity and displaced labor. Building on their shared qualities, the lecture will then suggest ways historians might use LLMs—perhaps best suited to produce the average or mundane—to scale up tasks also based on normative patterns across large-scale historical newspaper collections, such as genre classification, textual segmentation, or topic identification. Finally, the lecture will show how methods developed for computational historical research, such as the reprint detection tools developed for Viral Texts, can contribute to bibliographical investigation and description of LLMs and related AI systems.


About the speaker:


Ryan Cordell is Associate Professor of Information Science and English at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Before joining the iSchool, Cordell was associate professor of English at Northeastern University and a core founding faculty member in the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks. His scholarship seeks to illuminate how technologies of production, reception, circulation, and remediation shape the meanings of texts within historical communities, as well as how the complexities of historical texts pressure modern scholarly infrastructure. Cordell primarily studies circulation and reprinting in nineteenth-century American newspapers, but his interests extend to the influence of digitization and computation on contemporary reading, writing, and research. He collaborates with colleagues in English, History, and Computer Science on the Viral Texts project, which uses robust data mining tools to discover borrowed texts across large-scale archives of nineteenth-century periodicals. He is also a practicing letterpress printer who explores intersections between historical and contemporary information technologies through the lens of maker culture. Cordell is a Senior Fellow in the Andrew W. Mellon Society of Critical Bibliography at the Rare Book School and serves as the Delegate Assembly Representative for the MLA's Forum on Digital Humanities.

The lecture will be followed by a wine reception.

Bloomsbury Chapter is a co-operative venture between the Institute of English Studies in the School of Advanced Study and the Centre for Publishing in UCL. It promotes research and teaching in the broad areas of communication history, authorship, publishing, textual editing, and reading. The Stevenson lecture is given in memory of Professor Iain Stevenson, who established the Centre for Publishing in 2006. 

Unless stated otherwise, all our events are free of charge and anyone interested in the topic is welcome to attend. Registration is required for all events.