Archive for the ‘WWO’ Category

New Digital Projects I: Vernacular Aristotelianism and Digitized Archives at the Wellcome Library

September 28, 2012

The following guest post, the first of two parts, is from Andie Silva, Wayne State University

The University of Warwick, in association with the Newberry library, has been conducting a long-term research project on “Reading Publics.” This project, led by Professor Simon Gilson, Dr. David Lines, and Dr. Maude Vanhaelen, encourages conversations about communities of readers, evidence of readership and reception, and the social and cultural involvement of individual and networks of readers on the print marketplace. This research is possible in great part due to the growth of digitization projects and increasing availability of data and archival materials. As the project’s webpage outlines, however, “the availability of these resources not only varies greatly depending on language, author, country, and period, but also calls for careful methodological reflection.”

This summer, the program leaders organized three activities designed to foster conversation and scholarship on the topic of “Reading Publics” and digitization. I, along with nineteen other scholars from the United States, England, and Italy, was selected to participate in their final activity, a two-week workshop at the University of Warwick. During this workshop, we attended presentations on two new, exciting database and digitization projects: Vernacular Aristotelianism in Renaissance Italy, c. 1400-c. 1650 (University of Warwick); and the on-going project to digitize the entire catalogue at the Wellcome Library, one of the world’s largest collections of history of medicine materials. The following, the first of a two-part post, will focus on the Vernacular Aristotelianism.

The Vernacular Aristotelianism database was launched in May 2012. So far, the catalogue accounts for over 400 titles, half printed books and half manuscripts. The goal of its developers is to catalogue all vernacular works that reference Aristotle or interpret Aristotelian works, (including falsely-attributed texts)—a helpful addition to those researching reception and production of Aristotelian texts in early modern Europe. One of the greatest features of this database is the flexibility of its search engine. A sidebar menu allows searches to be conducted solely on “manuscripts,” “printed editions,” “authors,” “dedicatees,” and “printers.” Thus, a scholar interested in how many times Cosimo de Medici was the chosen dedicatee for Aristotelian-related works would quickly and relatively easily discover at least five works on her first attempt. The catalogued texts still appear in varying degrees of detail. All works, I believe, already have a basic listing, including date and location of first publication, author, printer, and a short description of the work.

A shorter, yet still impressive, number of records contain further detail: if the database’s current webmaster, Eugenio Refini, has physically visited the copy, he has shared his notes on the size, condition, and title-page details of particular editions. Since a lot of his notes pertain to specific copies, he will also note which edition he has seen, and where. Even better, Refini has put considerable effort in cataloguing paratextual information, including what kinds of paratexts are available in the work (epistles, indexes, notes) and whether or not the book includes any visual elements (though no specifics are given as to what kinds of visuals). A few texts also contain “internal descriptions,” where sections of the work are either fully transcribed or generally outlined.

This kind of deep-level information is still lacking from most North American databases and catalogue searches. Although it would be recognizably difficult to restructure a large website like EEBO so that it contains more non-authorial details (and do so consistently across records), many projects like Brown’s fantastic Women Writers Online or the University of Michigan’s Renaissance Liturgical Imprints could benefit from more comprehensive and transparent search options. Of course, that is not to mention many potentially exciting projects like British Literary Manuscripts Online and Arkyves, which are largely available by subscription only. This reliance on existing catalogues and older cataloguing methods, especially ones originally designed for material holdings, holds back many digital projects from their full potential as new search tools.

When the database was first presented at the workshop, we were impressed with the range of detail and information Dr. David Lines and Dr. Eugenio Refini have been able to gather. However, most of us were skeptical about their ability to offer the same level of detail for all their records. One pertinent suggestion from the group was the possibility of “crowd sourcing.” Although it could take a single scholar (or even a small group of scholars) a long time to add bibliographical details to all 400 works (their goal, I believe is to expand the database in the future), if users could submit their own notations, that work could happen quickly and effectively. This would no doubt enrich the database beyond its already incredible achievements and make a number of new kinds of research possible.

There are, of course, a few limitations to the database. In order to make so many search terms immediately within reach, the page is visually overwhelming. The search button at the top is easily missed amongst all the information on the center of the page, and the preloaded first record that opens with the database might at first be confusing. Once the search is successfully performed, the user will need to find the browsing buttons at the top left of the page to sort through each result. For those uneasy with technology, these immediate challenges might be intimidating, and the researcher would unfortunately be missing out on a valuable and incredibly detailed resource.

Even for those of us not performing research on Aristotle, this database raises some important issues. First, the range of non-canonic texts yet to be properly catalogued and annotated, let alone studied, remains overwhelming. Smaller, single-focused websites like Vernacular Aristotelianism highlight how crucial the Digital Humanities have been to providing new and productive avenues for scholarship. We need more projects like this (and perhaps more government funding to make them possible).

Secondly, the organizers have taken into consideration an important shift (by no means wholly “new” anymore, but still time-consuming due to limited search methods) in bibliographical studies, having to do with the analysis of paratextual material and surface-level concerns as integral aspects of textual production and reception. Although scholars like Helen Smith and Michael Saenger have greatly contributed to the study of paratextual and material elements, most of these materials remain uncatalogued. What’s left to the scholar of paratexts is a manual archival search, browsing through texts one by one either digitally or at national archives. Vernacular Aristotelianism provides a helpful starting point of information that, although it does not replace visiting the physical copy, broadens the scope of research and expands the specificity of academic projects.

Classification and Interpretation, and the Construction of Digital Resources

September 28, 2010

In “The Alchemy of Turning Fiction into Truth” (Journal of Scholarly Publishing, [July 2008]: 354-372), David Henge examines the LC classification system and its treatment of “historical” works. Noting that works catalogued under the LC classification system’s D-DX, E and F categories are generally assumed to be factually based, Henge demonstrates the error of this assumption. He opens by discussing four types of works devoted to studying the past—“history based on solid evidence and argument, history based on less acceptable forms of these, pseudo-history, and counterfactual history” (354)—but his key concern is with the cataloguing of the last kind of history. Counterfactual histories or “pretend histories”

immediately and unabashedly depart from accepted versions of the past in order to hypothesize about what the course of the past and present might have been., if only different events and outcomes had taken place. They never quite pretend that these alternative histories did occur, but they clearly often wish they had. (357-58)

Despite addressing themselves to a past that never occurred, these counterfactual works are more often than not given LC designations that place them among works of actual history. Such placement seems all the more odd if we consider that the LC system does have other categories that would better signal their status. For example, the HX806-HX811 call numbers represent Utopias, the Ideal State, and these categories often seem a far better fit for the titles Henge discusses (368). Although most of these works end up in history, a few have been correctly placed under the classification designations for fiction. That some do end up in fiction ironically boosts the factual nature of those fictional works that remain classified as history. Further clouding the status of these “pretend histories” is their frequent adoption of the trappings of authoritative scholarly work—the appearance of “maps, footnotes, numbers, and pictures with false captions” (362) as well as the imprint of a university press.

While Henge identifies general readers as the population at greatest risk for viewing titles bearing D-DX, E or F designations as credible and factually based, his study does address issues relevant to the creation of scholarly digital resources. Henge notes that although “guides to the LC classification scheme spend considerable time classifying history, they ignore the equally important task of defining it” (363). Similarly, building digital resources entails designing classification schemes, and it is important to make the logic of those systems transparent. Henge’s article usefully reminds us that classification is an exercise in interpretation and that users must understand the rationale and assumptions behind the interpretative processes employed in the various classificatory designations. Even a cursory look at the description of the TEI header on the Text Coding Initiative’s website makes the link between classification and interpretation abundantly clear.

From another, less technical perspective, the desired feedback sought by Julia Flanders and John Melson for “Exploring Reception History in Women Writers Online” represents the type of forethought necessary for anticipating users’ needs and assumptions effectively and for creating the type of supporting contextual documents that will help lay bare the thought processes involved in creating a digital resource. In the process of discussing visionary failures of the LC classification designers, Henge points out that its originators assigned the essentially the same amount of classification space to the history of Asia as they did to the history of gypsies and labels this case “the most egregious example in the D-DX (history properly speaking) classes of the failure to anticipate growth” (360). While this decision seems inexplicable, generally it can be very difficult to predict future needs and build a resource capable of growth. This difficulty is compounded by the potential of digital resources to create new perspectives and new areas of inquiries not yet imagined.

The cataloguing of “pretend histories” as actual history that Henge identifies underscores that even accepted authorities like the LC classification scheme are not infallible. A parallel to Henge’s critique, work by Jim May, Stephen Tabor and others on problems with the ESTC have already received attention on emob, and both cases suggest a healthy dose of skepticism is often warranted even when dealing with respected and well-established resources.

Exploring reception history in Women Writers Online

September 16, 2010

We’re delighted to have been invited to contribute to the EMOB blog. The Brown University Women Writers Project has a strong interest in the issues raised here and we hope to learn a great deal from EMOB’s readers about how scholars work with digital collections.

In this first posting, we’d like to announce an upcoming project for which we just received funding, and solicit the attention and thoughts of this community as we start planning. Once the project gets started, we’ll have more concrete things to seek feedback on and also opportunities for contribution.

Many readers of this blog will already have seen the announcement of the WWP’s most recent NEH grant, “Cultures of Reception: Transatlantic Readership and the Construction of Women’s Literary History”. This three-year project will begin in January 2011, and its overall goal is to gather and study materials that can help us grasp the reception history for texts in the WWO collection. We’ll be focusing on published reviews from the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but also including other sources such as anthologies, early literary histories, and manuscript materials like diaries, letters, and commonplace books.

Our plan is to digitize reviews and contemporary critical responses to women’s writing, in a way that enables us to mark explicitly for study a set of key points for analysis: for instance, the author of the review, the text being reviewed, the evaluative language used, any other texts with which the reviewed text is being compared, the terms of the comparison, as well as information needed to enable us to trace geographical and temporal connections. These source materials will be published through an interface that allows readers of WWO to examine the reception history of a given text (or textual exchange), and also to get a broader view of the terms in which women’s writing was being read and evaluated, both publicly and privately.

There will be opportunities for participation of various kinds, including contributions of contemporary reader responses to WWP texts, and also input on the design of the interface for working with the source materials. We will also be very glad to hear from anyone who is working directly on reception history, who might be interested in working with us more closely (for instance, using the collection to prepare an article that we might publish with WWO). At the outset, though, we also have a few issues on which we’d be very glad of people’s thoughts:

  1. What does one need to know about reading and reviewing practices in order to make a meaningful study of reception history? What are the potential blind spots in this project?
  2. What opportunities for new questions and approaches might a collection like this open up? For instance, how might geographical information affect our understanding of readership and reception? What kinds of interface tools would best facilitate working with these materials?
  3. What other kinds of research questions might arise out of these materials? Are there larger purposes we should be bearing in mind for this data that might affect how much detail we capture, etc.?

We look forward to following the discussion and learning more!

best wishes,

Julia Flanders
John Melson

Women Writers Project, Brown University Center for Digital Scholarship


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