Elizabeth Scott-Baumann and Ben Burton’s recent paper,“Encoding form: A proposed database of poetic form”, for APPOSITIONS:
Studies in Renaissance / Early Modern Literature and Culture‘s recent E-Conference: February-March, 2010, is suggestive of how new digital resources can be developed to augment the capabilities of existing tools such as EEBO and EECO. Responding many years later to Heather Dubrow’s 1979 call for “new methodology in early modern studies,” Scott-Baumann and Burton are constructing a database devoted to poetic form. Their project will afford a means of studying, historically and formally, poetic form by enabling queries about poetic form and generic transformations that resemble those we can now pose about words, thanks to electronic databases such as EEBO and EECO:
What is the origin (or origins) of a given form? How does its structure, use, and meaning change over time? Are there variations in use and meaning in different regions, or among different groups? How does a given form relate to others, and how does this relationship change over time?
Concentrating on sixteenth- and seventeenth-century poetry, Scott-Baumann and Burton will use existing EEBO-TCP texts and enhance them with additional mark-up that builds upon Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) tags. As those familiar with TEI documentation will recall, its tags include ones designed for encoding verse: “stanza divisions, caesurae, enjambment, rhyme scheme, and metrical information, as well as a special purpose rhyme element to support the simple analysis of rhyming words.” Because encoding capabilities extend beyond merely marking general formal conventions and can also entail encoding that represent interpretive judgments, Scott-Baumann and Burton will experiment with both possibilities. The inevitably time-consuming nature of their task will probably result in building the databases in stages.
As for publication plans for the database, its creators “aim to negotiate with EEBO and Chadwyck-Healey to find a form of publication which both respects intellectual property and commercial interests, while also making this rich new material accessible to the widest possible audience.” Scott-Baumann and Burton have clearly thought hard about issues of access and how to maximize this database’s availability for users. They present four different possible options, formulated with an eye to those lacking access to EEBO. As they note though, much will depend on what arrangements they are able to make with EEBO/Chadwyck-Healey.
Noting that their database, once built, could be expanded beyond its present focus on the 1500s and 1600s to cover all periods of poetry, they then devote a section of their paper to its potential scholarly and pedagogical uses. Most obvious perhaps is the usefulness this planned tool could have on advancing work in historical formalism, an emerging approach that revisits “poetic form as historically specific, historically determined, and historically efficacious.” The ability to conduct specific searches across a significant number of poetic texts enables the quick capture of evidence to support or disprove what are currently only hypothetical propositions based on a small textual sample. Rightly claiming that this database “would change the way in which scholarship on poetic form is conducted, Scott-Baumann and Burton detail a wealth of possible questions and issues it could serve. This section also offers a range of pedagogical uses for this tool and addresses a range of audiences from the undergraduate to the secondary student.
Before a brief conclusion, the paper then turns to discussing the two-stage pilot project for the database:
1. A small database containing information on the metrical structures and rhyme schemes of all verse in the first edition of 10 texts published between 1590 and 1599. 2. A larger database containing information on the metrical structures and rhyme schemes of all verse in first editions of texts published during this period.
Scott-Baumann and Burton’s database plans present another way of thinking about EEBO and how to augment its value. That they have proposed to build their database using EEBO-TCP seems essentially a wise plan, notwithstanding unsettled questions about access.* For one, linking one’s project to an already well-established resource should ensure its visibility. Too often very worthy projects are launched but remain unknown to many who would benefit from them. In addition, such a tie-in helps ensure continuity among resources. This augmentation of EEBO’s capabilities and the efforts to provide continuity are similar to what NINES and 18thConnect are offering later periods.
*One of the access options does offer “[o]pen access to database and texts but not with mark up. …if we are not able to make the XML-encoded texts freely available, we would display the texts in their entirety [as users request them], but with the encoding invisible. … and display the verse with, for example, its stresses marked with accents, or its rhyme scheme colour-coded, rather than with visible tags.”