EVEN AS A child, James Hyman could not bear to throw away his copies of the Beano. Later, when working for MTV—first as a press officer compiling the day’s clippings, then as a researcher working on behalf of the hosts—he found a reason to seek out and acquire yet more magazines. “What I needed was new information: I couldn’t just regurgitate press releases,” he says. “That’s when I ramped up my collecting.”
Mr Hyman is now 50. He left MTV two decades ago but still collects magazines: he has so many he had to move them out of his house and into storage units, and then out of storage units into their own dedicated space. (“I’m not a hoarder,” he avers. “A hoarder accumulates without purpose or intent.”) He has gathered so many volumes that he’s included in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the world’s largest collection of magazines—50,953 editions of 2,312 titles, certified on August 1st 2012.
That figure is out of date: Mr Hyman’s collection now stands at around 150,000 editions of roughly 5,000 titles. They form the bulk of HYMAG, a dedicated magazine library housed in a former factory in Woolwich, south-east London. It’s an overwhelming sight: piles and piles and piles of magazines, on shelves that rise up towards the metal roof. Here’s Athletics Monthly; here’s Playboy; here’s Stool Pigeon. The library’s users—mostly researchers, writers, film-makers and fashion companies—often immerse themselves in the archive for days. It’s something akin to a British, more pop-culture-focussed version of Nicholson Baker’s American Newspaper Repository.
It is not just the words that are important, Mr Hyman stresses, but what surrounds them: the advertisements, the page layouts, the typography and all the other marginalia that have been lost as text has transitioned to the internet. “The ephemera defines an era as much as the content. Roland Barthes wrote about wrestling, and about how what was important was what went on around the fight, not just the fight itself—the crowd, the posters, the noise.” A hard copy of a magazine provides both the bout and the ringside action.
As well as the magazines, HYMAG also houses the extraordinary archive of Edda Taskiema. A one-woman cuttings service, every day Taskiema bought every newspaper and clipped and filed each story for use by journalists. Robert Maxwell, a disgraced media tycoon, tried to buy her collection but was turned down. She was keener on Mr Hyman. “I went and met her and I was flabbergasted. Everything was in her house,” he says. “Dead people filed in her garage, religion in her bathroom, and so on.” When she died, she bequeathed her collection to Mr Hyman, and here it all is, in dusty A4 card folders, secured with rubber bands and handwritten labels indicating what the subject is. “Potatoes” sit alongside “Pope John Paul II” and “Poland”.
Currently HYMAG just about breaks even. It charges researchers £75 ($103) per hour, and only Mr Hyman and two others work there. But now he wants to digitise the collection so it can be available online at a much lower cost. Scanning tens of millions of magazine pages will take money he doesn’t have: he needs to raise between £1.5m-2m, which he is seeking from crowdfunding, private investors and grants. As a magazine zealot, and an enthusiast for the romance of print media, Mr Hyman believes digitising the collection will save something that faces extinction as surely as the orangutan does. HYMAG is nothing less than a parallel history of the last half century or so, told through its ephemera—history that deserves to survive.