The Sisyphean Quest


Hands up! We all have them. Magazines! Magazine collections stacked in the bookshelves, placed carefully in date order in folders, boxed and labelled before being safely placed in the attic. Magazines from childhood or current magazines around an interest or hobby. 

I’m hoping my son’s ‘Dr Who’ collection, numbering into the hundreds will one day be part of his retirement fund! My writing magazines are spilling out of the bookcases onto the surrounding floor. My science magazine collection was only recently discarded as mould had sadly attacked them. My husband’s childhood comic collection are hopefully not so ravaged and may well fund a cruise one day!  

None of these however come near the 85,000 + magazines owned by the 2012 Guinness World Record Breaker for the largest magazine collection in the world, James Hyman.

jhymanmagarchive1James Hyman started on a mission in 1990 to collect and preserve as many magazines as possible. He felt panic by the potential loss to humankind of the information and resources held in these magazines and therefore established what is today known as the ‘Hyman Archive’. He sees himself as a ‘guardian and preserver of popular culture in physical form’ and hopes to one day form a giant research library.

Currently all the magazines are housed in a huge warehouse near the Thames in Woolwich, London and 55% of his stock is not owned by the British Library and therefore not accessible to the general public. He hopes to change this. With Tory Turk, creative lead, he is busy cataloging and digitising the collection to unlock it for researchers and the general public. 

The theme for his collection is ‘Popular Culture In Print’ and  amongst the reading material he is also ‘preserving pictures, illustrations and photography’. It concentrates on print magazines from 1910 and onwards. The collection is currently growing at a rate of 20% per annum – largely through donations from the general public and there is a constant appeal for material from ‘publishers, collectors and enthusiasts’. It is already recognised as a huge cultural resource and actively used by companies and individuals alike. One example is the ‘David Bowie’ exhibition, which made great use of its resources and is now going on world tour with some of the information gleamed from the Hyman Archive.

shelvesOne can only start to comprehend the scale of the project when you see his large warehouse, shelves upon shelves of neatly stacked magazines. Corridors of information, the serious mingling with the fun – from ‘film, TV, Music, Music video, Art, Fashion, Architecture, Interior design, Trends, Youth, Lifestyle, Women’s, Men’s, Technology, Sports, Photography, Counter-culture, Graphics, Animation, and Comics’.  All set to saved for the future. ‘The New Google’ said one current user of the collection.

‘Madness that could be genius’ is how one relative described Hyman’s ambition. 

Madness however that is well on the way to becoming a reality and within twenty years it is envisaged that the collection will be ‘living, reading and accessible’. Not only is the data being digitised, James Hyman is also using ‘meta-tag, analytical tools to visualise date’ to aid all the ‘researchers, readers and students’ he believes will use the collection. 

Furthermore the collection extends beyond the printed word and picture and includes 30,000 CDs, 20,000 vinyl records plus thousands of DVDs. The numbers are staggering, the task seemingly insurmountable and almost impossible, as James Hyman has admitted, ‘a Sisyphean Quest’.  (If like me, the phrase is unknown to you, Sisyphus was a Greek King who’s punishment for his self-aggrandising craftiness and deceitfulness was to be forced to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, repeating it for eternity.)

Have you ever felt the same concern about the information that may be lost to the future? Do you have your own special magazine collection? Do you think this collection and information would be of any use or interest to you in your work or blogging life? As always, I look forward to reading and sharing all your comments. 

U P D A T E            

Following the appearance of this post James Hyman was kind enough to visit it and to comment. In his comment he also answered many of the questions raised by others in the comments section. I am pleased to print part of his reply here for ease – I know it can be time-consuming to trawl through lots of messages.

I plan to keep the physical copy once everything is digitised as a physical artefact has its place and importance. Without going into too much technical details what is important post-digitisation is the tagging of the material to help anyone’s research (creative industries, academics, students etc) e.g. that pair of boots in that image – say, they are David Bowie’s, where was the picture taken? Who was the photographer? What is the context of this picture? (last gig as ‘Ziggy Stardust’ for example). Furthermore, careful tagging can enrich the data set and answer complex questions and provide connections that are not easy to realise. So, again, in popular culture, how does Stanley Kubrick relate to Bob Dylan in the 80s? Well, if everything is tagged, you could get a result such as a March 1987 Playboy Interview with Jack Nicholson who talks about Kubrick being his favourite director and how he would love to play alongside Bob Dylan in Kubrick’s next film.

Never forget, before the internet, magazines were the internet in many ways; they have been the zeitgeist, containing the best content from photographers, authors, illustrators, designers, and publishers. Not everything is readily available on Google. Remember, how you search and how those search results can be displayed & analysed is also of great importance and value.

Finally, if anyone wishes to donate their magazines to the archive, please get in touch via

By James Hyman



The Oseberg Ship. Photo by Mårten Teigen of Museum of Cultural History, Oslo
The Oseberg Ship. Photo by Mårten Teigen of Museum of Cultural History, Oslo

Like subterranean explorers we travelled for miles along the network of tunnels approaching Oslo. This was quite unlike any city approach I had experienced.

The occasional car swished past on the cavernous carriageway of Bjørvika Tunnel and soon we made our exit from the urban roads. Within minutes we arrived on Bygdøy, a small rural island which boosts an array of tantalising museums. Among them is the Kon-Tiki Museum. Thor Heyerdahl’s book made a huge impression on me as young and one day I must return for this pilgrimage. For now our destination was The Viking Ship Museum which was  easy to find with the aid of the long-suffering SatNav struggling on with the Norwegian pronunciation.

Overhead shot of The Oseberg Ship
Overhead shot of The Oseberg Ship

On seeing the Oseberg Ship I initially gasped in awe and immediately felt a humbling stirring in my soul. Over a thousand years old and our fore-fathers had not only created a vast sea-worthy craft but had done so with great sense of beauty and elegance. This was no clumsily constructed vessel, rather the wonder of craftsmanship shone from every angle, the soft planed oak boards with the carved keel, the perfect round-headed iron fastenings, then looking up to the bow I spotted the magnificently carved snake head spiral.

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The ship, the largest intact Viking ship in the world, was built around 820 AD and could be either sailed or rowed with 30 oarsmen. Fourteen years later The Oseberg Ship was used as a burial ship for two women, one in her 70s the other in her 50s.

Burial Chamber
Burial Chamber

They were placed in a specially made burial chamber which resembled a small log cabin and with them were placed various items to help them in the after-life, including kitchenware, sledges, clothes, as well as horses and dogs. The remains of a peacock was one of the more exotic and unusual animals discovered. There would have been jewellery and weapons but these were looted within a hundred years of burial.

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The artistic wonder continued as we wandered further into the museum. To be so aesthetically delighted was totally unexpected. We looked with awe at the beautifully carved sledges, a wagon, animal-head posts as well as the paraphernalia of the every day. The perfectly formed spades would not be amiss in a local B&Q; I could just imagine the price tag dangling on the top.

My wonder at these explorers of the past shifted to admiration of the early 20th Century archeologists whose care and dedication strove to rescue and persevere the finds which had been buried in the blue clay. Seeing the collapsed nature of the buried boats – oh yes, I forgot to mention the shock and amazement of discovering two further complete Viking Ships at the museum; The Gokstad Ship and The Tune Ship, tucked into opposing sides of the large cross-roads shaped museum.

Buried boats and artefacts were discovered tumbled to the side like giant wooden dominoes. All askew. All topsy-turvy. Looking so fragile in the photographs from the era, now the power and force resonated from the ships, silencing the large crowd mingling around us.

Our experience at the museum was tinged with sadness and poignancy as we learned my son’s generation might be to last to view the artefacts on display. The seemingly perfect objects were preserved with alum and they are slowly corroding from the inside out whilst scientists are working hard to find a solution to the chemical disintegration.

Replete in spirit and mind we left in mutual silence, our musings loud in our own heads, our hearts full of raw emotions from our millennium journey in the previous hours. It was time to leave this island of tranquility and head to our next destination – our hotel in Oslo city centre.