Introductions: How to Improve EEBO, ECCO, and Burney Collection Online?


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.


7 Responses to “Introductions: How to Improve EEBO, ECCO, and Burney Collection Online?”

  1. Dave Mazella Says:

    Nice job. One of the things I discussed with the ECCO people when they visited my campus was the possibility of a blog, sponsored or unsponsored, that would allow users to begin tagging the documents found there. There would have to be some kind of vetting going on, but it would be interesting, for example, to know the sub-genres contained in the database, author/printer/political affiliation networks, and so on. I also understand that aggregating this kind of information is problematic, since the assignment of categories is always arguable, but I think it would be interesting to try something like this.



  2. Anna Battigelli Says:


    Would the blog you have in mind go through items in ECCO and categorize/tag the actual entries in ECCO or would they compile
    a separate database of tagged titles? I’m curious about this and
    would like to understand more what you are looking for in such a
    project. Interesting.



  3. Dave Mazella Says:

    I dunno. I get nervous at the idea of a Wikipedia-style free-for-all, where people simply have access to the real database to start editing things at will, but it would have to be a fairly open, Flickr-like process where user-generated tags could accumulate somewhere and then be usable in tandem with the database. I’m thinking maybe a scholarly group (something like NINES) that would process such tagging requests and submit to Gale through a regular process of updates. It would make ECCO far more useful, and usable, than it already is, and build up another set of scholarly resources alongside the database. Sort of like the indices and attribution guides later scholars developed for the Gentleman’s Magazine.


  4. Anna Battigelli Says:

    I’ve added a link to NINES (Nineteenth-Century Scholarship Online) to the blogroll. Between Romantic Circles (an online review site) and NINES, nineteenth-century scholars provide useful models for us. You’re right that such a scholarly group would help make ECCO and EEBO “more useful and usable.” I’m going to have to study NINES a bit more closely. Are there other such sites?


  5. Dave Mazella Says:

    Hmm, take a look at my early modern and 18c resources on the blogroll, but I’d definitely look at the Hoarding, for romanticism and 19c:

    The Cynic Sang has a lot of interesting links to cites tagged “digital humanities” but definitely try AcademHack

    and Lisa Spiro’s Digital Scholarship in the Humanities

    Some good scholars to contact for such an initiative would be Laura Mandell and Dave Radcliffe, both of whom are overworked, but might be interested in what you’re proposing.



  6. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    To follow up on Anna’s query about NINES and Dave’s remarks about contacting Laura Mandell and Dave Radcliffe, there is a project underway for the 18th century that is a counterpart of sorts to NINES, 18thConnect that Laura Mandell and Bob Markley have launched. I have placed a link to the project under the new category “Projects, Societies, and Panels.” Also under this category, I have placed YouTube videos from a MLA 2007 panel. There are multiple links to coincide with the various presenters. Dave Radcliffe (the session labeled ‘Part 6’) is the one I was planning on recommending if one did not have time to consider all eight.



  7. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Though this blog is focused on bibliographical issues, behind these issues is the practical problem of distribution and access. After all, if digital technology divides the academy into those who have access to its new digital resources and those who do not, that technology simply isolates its material and fragments the profession devoted to interpreting it.

    18th Connect provides a piercingly lucid analysis of the difficult situations presented to both universities and the profession as a consequence of these text-bases’ high cost. In Cynthia Wall’s 2007 MLA session, David Radcliffe argues along similar lines, adding that, potentially, ECCO could have a far larger audience requiring different and broader marketing strategies than it currently envisions. These are topics worth pursuing.


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