The technology that replicates the pages of physical texts into digital form online offers eighteenth-century scholars resources unimaginable even ten years ago. The new English text-bases—EEBO, ECCO, and Burney Collection online—provide digital facsimiles that are sometimes cleaner and easier to read than the originals. With a few clicks, a facsimile appears on one’s computer screen, making the task of piecing together religious or political controversy or contextualizing a poem or novel easier in some respects than it used to be. Using these text-bases helps protect fragile books from unnecessary handling. Additionally, ECCO’s search mechanism, which includes portions of EEBO if an institution subscribes to both text-bases, allows for blessedly rapid tracking of words and phrases. Even when I am reading handpress books in special archives, I find myself using EEBO and ECCO to check the accuracy of quoted material, to review arguments in other books to which the book before me responds, to consult fragile books, or to chase quotes. When I leave those archives, these digital libraries become essential to my ongoing work.
But looking at a facsimile, however speedily it arrives on one’s screen, is not the same thing as holding a text in one’s hands. The black-and-white appearance of the online facsimiles erases chain lines, watermarks, paper quality, and, when the scanned spread has been cropped poorly, even the perimeter of the text. The thinginess of the book, which so often records traces of what D.F. McKenzie called “the human presence in any recorded text,” is missing. In some cases, copying a microfilm facsimile to create a digitized facsimile diminishes rather than increases legibility. Because EEBO and ECCO rely on the ESTC, they share some of the cataloguing problems endemic to that valuable database. The resulting attribution errors can interfere with the text-bases’s utility. For example, searching for Restoration Catholic polemicists, who often used pseudonyms or wrote anonymously, involves knowing the name (alias, religious name, original name) used by the cataloguers. A simple author search in EEBO for the Franciscan Vincent Canes yields nothing. An author search for “J.V.C.,” however, calls up much, though not all, of his work. Similarly, holdings listings could be strengthened: more could be done to eliminate duplicate records or to signal the existence of items not reproduced. As many bibliographers point out, neither EEBO nor ECCO can claim to cover comprehensively their period’s printed material.
These bibliographical problems and others are currently limitations in these text-bases’ utility. This space has been designed with the hope that it will advance discussion of such problems and perhaps even propose solutions.