This article offers an interview with the founders of 18thConnect, Laura Mandell and Bob Markley. Under Projects, Panels, and Societies, the link for 18thConnect provides a series of video presentations on the project:
A Video Introduction:
18thConnect: Promoting Digital Projects in the Field
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Searching in ECCO
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What We Propose to Do to Enrich the Digital 18th Centruy
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The relationship between librarians and professors
As this material suggests, the project is a highly ambitious but much needed undertaking. The discussions this blog aims to generate should offer insights and collaborative ideas that will benefit 18thConnect and other projects geared to harnessing 21st-century tools for 18th-century scholarship.
This link provides a helpful overview of 18th Connect. I have two sets of questions, one for Bob and another for Laura. I’m wondering about Bob’s claim that finding aids such as NINES or 18th Connect actually break down boundaries between disciplines. I appreciate the example from Pope’s Windsor-Forest, but is the advantage of 18th Connect the speed with which it links articles on, say, Pope’s ideals of landscape design with articles on Tory responses to the poem? Or is there more to this than speed? Also, how would you convince a cynic that tagging items in ECCO with metadata would benefit everyone’s scholarship? Is it because tagging produces a proliferation of indexes or filtering mechanism? Is proliferation necessarily an advance in quality or utility? My sense is that many non-specialists are interested in learning more about this.
I’m also very interested in Laura’s concept of creating data out of images. How close are we to having software that can reliably read pages so as to create truly searchable texts? Is this an imminent possibility or still in the development stage?
Questions about tagging and quality are helpful reminders of the interpretive nature of the activity and the need for expertise. Many years ago I attended the Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities, and one lesson driven home was the idea that customizing the TEI headers and executing the coding were intellectual, scholarly activities and not simply a branch of data entry. Coding is an act of interpretation and needs to be recognized as such.
As for advances in searchability of images, such tools that would enable us to search printers’ ornaments or illustrations would be a huge development, and I too wonder at what stage we are in the development of such software. I have often longed to be able to search across images in ECCO for such information about plates that appear in works by different publishers as well as a single issuer.
I read the article, and think that one of the things the 18thConnect people could do is a CFP for a conference/workshop that would begin to test the capabilities. At this point, we know we have a certain capability to do some things, but the projects described here do not sound radically different than existing work. Set up some grants and a selection committee, then see who turns up with a good concrete pilot project that could use this kind of setup.
I think the “mechanical reading” concept here is going to receive a certain amount of skepticism, unless someone can demonstrate the benefits of this kind of work. Moretti’s work has encountered similar skepticism, so I think we should learn from that experience.
My own suspicion is that we could do tremendous work in generic and conceptual histories with these kinds of resources, and doing it across databases, to take in lots of non-literary genres (newspapers etc.) but we also need questions and projects that demand this kind of evidence.
I think Eleanor’s example of searching illustrations gives me a better sense of the potential questions we could answer than what I found in the article.
Last year at ASECS in Richmond, Laura Mandell and Robert Markley did host the following panel on Thursday:
57. “Digital Futures: Encoding the Eighteenth-Century” Salon B
Chair: Laura MANDELL, Miami University
1. Robert MARKLEY, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign,
“18thConnect: A Model for Humanities Cyberinfrastructure”
2. David H. RADCLIFFE, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State
University, “Editing with TEI: Poem, Edition, Archive”
Respondent: Brad PASANEK, University of Virginia
Unfortunately, I did not arrive in time to attend, but as Dave suggests, a conference that is widely advertised and seeks broad participation in addressing what is needed electronically for 18th-century scholarship is an excellent idea.
Some scholars have been working for many, many years on periodicals, and now there is a decided growing interest among 18th-centuryists to explore such material. That periodicals and newspapers were not part of the original plan for ESTC has delayed the bibliographic work needed here. I should mention the long labors of Jim Tierney who has received a number of grants and fellowships to complete an electronic database of the Osborn index to 205 British periodicals (1681-1800):
Osborn, James M. An unpublished index, on cards, to 205 British periodicals (1681-1800); it includes a first-line index to perhaps 5000 poems. The Osborn index is what remains of an unfinished subject index to eighteenth-century British periodicals compiled in the British Museum, the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and the Yale University Library during the late 1930s and early 1940s. The index is owned by James E. Tierney, Department of English (emeritus), University of Missouri, St. Louis, MO 63121, and serves as the foundation for a much more comprehensive electronic subject index of pre-1800 British periodicals that he is now compiling. This electronic index, however, will not include first lines. See further Tierney, “A CD-ROM Subject Index to Pre-1800 British Periodicals,” East-Central Intelligencer ns 5.3 (Sept. 1991): 8-13. (From James Woolley, “First-Line Indexes of English Verse, 1650-1800: A Checklist,” The Bibliographical Society of America Bibsite: http://www.bibsocamer.org/BibSite/Woolley/index.pdf
Once available,Tierney’s database will significantly advance work in periodicals. He has been traveling to holdings and reading through the issues one by one to prepare his index. About problems encountered in searching the Burney 17th and 18th newspaper collection, see Jim May’s recent Intelligencer article (May 2009) listed in the bibliography section of this blog.
Also, I just returned from the SHARP 2009 conference, I chaired a panel on which Shef Rogers (University of Otago) gave a talk on a database that he is developing that will offer the price paid for copyright and other cost and pricing information that will enable us to “value publications” in economic terms. Such a database will be a highly useful tool and responds to calls by Williams St, Clair and Rob Hume for more attention to economic issues. At that same conference, Nancy Mace offered a detailed account of how to figure the profits of music publishers. While her project is part of book-length project on music publishing, when it is published, it would be very good to have her data available electronically.
Finally, I’m concerned about a decline in bibliographic training these days–a trend that is ironic given the arguably increased need for bibliographic knowledge and expertise in our growing digital environment.
Eleanor is right to connect the decline in bibliographic training with deficient uses of text-bases such as EEBO and ECCO. As Ian Gadd puts it, using EEBO correctly
requires a particular kind of prior scholarly knowledge, a knowledge about old books that is most obviously associated with the discipline of bibliography (Gadd, “Use and Misuse of Early English Books Online“).
The same applies to ECCO.
Dave’s skepticism regarding “mechanical reading” points to the two very different kinds of searching necessary from these text-bases. Text searching (available in ECCO and only partially available in EEBO) allows users to perform keyword searches of texts. We know that such searching is never reliably comprehensive because of the text-bases’ limited holdings and because of the inconsistent performance of OCR programs. Even if an improved OCR program were to allow for greater confidence that page images were reliably translated into machine-readable text, there would be a great need for a second, equally and perhaps more conclusive kind of searching: catalogue searching. To strengthen this type of search, improved bibliographical entries within the text-bases are absolutely necessary. A stronger synthesis with more detailed ESTC entries, which include printer’s devices and other useful information (such as location), would exponentially strengthen searching in EEBO and ECCO. The act of reading the texts that emerge from a catalogue search might still best be done the old-fashioned way.
Yes, bibliographic knowledge and expertise will very much affect the quality of one’s search. Moreover, such familiarity with ‘original’ texts and the bibliographic skills used to describe and decipher them are crucial tools in the creation of digitized texts and in the ability to detect errors in the results returned and in accompanying information such as the notes provided (notes that sometimes are derived from ESTC and catalogue entries). At the same time, as both Laura and Bob note, humanities scholars would benefit from greater knowledge of computing (interestingly, humanities computing dates from the 1950s, but its role in the humanities has unfolded for many decades on the margins of humanities scholarship).
I would also like to comment on some issues that Bob Markley’s remarks raise:
18thConnect will move beyond what I think of as a tepid interdisciplinarity: a historian sits down with a copy of Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest and pokes through it looking for Tory responses to the ongoing war with France; in another building, a literary critic reads passages from an eighteenth-century history of landscape architecture in order to make general claims about Pope’s view of the ideal country estate. Neither specialist ever reads the other’s article. ECCO, the Eighteenth-Century Collections Online, is a step in the right direction of breaking down disciplinary boundaries because its 400,000 texts offer relatively easy ways for scholars to browse through resources, to do down-and-dirty keyword searches within texts, and to get some sense of the publishing history of individual titles.
I very much like the phrase ‘tepid interdisciplinarity’ that Bob uses. This phrase, for me at least, serves as a reminder that ‘strong” interdisciplinary work is not just a matter of venturing outside of one’s traditional textual world but also entails incoporating the questions asked and the methodologies used to answer those queries within individual disciplinary realms; a familiarty iwth that discipline’s historically significant and theoretically foundational texts also is warranted. Admittedly, a tall order… Nonetheless, we might wish to ask ourselves whether EEBO and ECCO, by making more and more texts available, are merely expanding the textual universe in which a literary scholar, historian, social scientist operates, or are these tools fostering new ways of thinking and working with these texts? Are hybrid or truly interdisiciplinary methodologies evolving? And, if so, in what ways are these methodologies strengthening, informing, or diluting scholarship within traditional disciplines?
Also, it might be useful to distnguish between tools that serve as delivery systems (I regard Project Muse and JStor and the like as such) and those that perform additional, often quite different functions such as acting as finding aids, invitations to reconceive textual landscapes, and more. In this second category I would place ECCO, EEBO, and even, though decidedly quite different, Google Books. When I find and download an article from say, JStor, I do not give too much thought to its printed form that served as the source for the PDF. My response to texts found in ECCO and EEBO is quite different–and I am spurred to ask questions about the materiality, the tactile features lost in digitization, the accuracy of the information provided in notes/records, and much more. I am not sure how well I am articulating the distinction here, but I need to turn to some other tasks right now and will try to elaborate later.
I like the distinction between a delivery system, such as JSTOR and Project Muse, and a second unnamed category that contextualizes. It seems to me that NINES and 18th Connect are primarily interested in creating platforms that facilitate that contextualization and nurture the engaged interdisciplinarity that Bob champions.
Glad that the distinction made some sense! And I agree that these digital projects/systems hold much potential for fostering more truly interdisciplinary approaches and deeper forms of contextualization. To some degree that potential, I would think, will depend on the ways we anticipate the types of questions we would like these tools to be able to handle. That’s why I also think we need to flesh out what we mean by ‘interdisciplinary’ as well as try to think beyond the parameters that have traditionally defined various disciplines. That said, I am certainly not recommending that we forego traditional attention to language and form–and the importance I place on bibliographic expertise in enhancing the functionality of digital projects and databases is no doubt already clear from my other posts.
Another aspect to the distinction between delivery system and platform/interpretive hub/federated infrastructure is that the latter, as NINES and 18th Connect envision it, involves peer review. The goal seems to be to ensure the continuation and integrity of peer review as scholarly production migrates from paper books and journals to electronic publication.
Here the question of access pops up again. Scholars who do not have access to EEBO and ECCO will lack primary sources almost inevitably necessary for peer review. The result is a more restricted pool of prospective peer reviewers.
First of all, Eleanor, thanks for sharing the news about Tierney’s work. (BTW, the link provided does not work for me).
I do hope it comes out in some format that would be accessible to scholars generally. This is where intellectual property issues collide with the interests of scholars generally, though this is nothing new.
I agree with everything said here about developing (and vetting) resources that could go beyond the “delivery system” model, and I didn’t mean to sound dismissive of RM’s “mechanical reading,” only to note that such a model needs pretty convincing instantiation and validation for it to become widely adopted.
But there’s another issue lurking here, too: to what extent is “interdisciplinarity” an act of individual will on the part of scholars? I suspect there are substantial historical factors behind at least some of the disciplinary divisions we’d like to overcome. For example, to what extent are activities like bibliography and textual editing common (i.e., accepted, encouraged, rewarded) in fields like political science, history, etc.? I’ve seen bibliography described as the most important contribution literary studies has to make to an interdisciplinary project in other fields, but that assumes that those fields really pay very little attention to those issues. (I don’t mean to suggest, though, that lit studies are all that comfortable with bibliography either, though)
So where are the historians, political theorists, philosophers, etc. when it comes to these scholarly resource issues? Are they as upset as we are about the problems with these resources?
(I will check on/fix the link–I really provided the link only as documentation for the quote; the link itself is to a first-line index of English verse 1650-1800 that James Woolley has prepared and that is posted on a resource page of the Bibliographical Society of America).
Jim Tierney’s database, if I am not mistaken, will be available without any fee/subscription cost. I know that he has wanted open access–though many of us at EC/ASECS over the years have told him that we would pay for a CD-ROM copy (even unfinished!). Anna’s point about access is one that I think needs to be continually made.
I would say that “interdisciplinarity” is primarily a matter of individual choice–though I think the ‘tepid’ versions sometimes can be attributed to perceptions of “interdisciplinarity” as “trendy” or “fashionable” and consequently scholars desire or feel pressured to follow that lead. In many other cases, there’s a sincere interest to engage across disciplines, but sometimes that engagement occurs without a thought to the methodological differences and the efforts become more of an extension of literary studies (often very enriching extensions) but not interdisciplinary in the strict sense of methodological incorporations.
As for the involvement of historians in bibliography, I see those who are working in history of the book (as it has developed, merging both the social concerns of the annales school and the Anglo-American bibliographic tradition) and print culture studies as often being quite knowledgeable about bibliographic matters and at times skilled in these pursuits. But my sense is that historians working in these areas, while at times well known in and outside of their discipline, are working in the margins of history as a discipline. It took the AHA (American Historical Association) a long time to recognize SHARP (the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing) as an affiliate, while MLA accepted SHARP fairly early on. I am trying to think if I know of any philosophers or political theorists who also are interested in bibliographic matters (let alone who conduct bibliographic investigations), and I can’t think of any at the moment. And, yes, I think that even within literary studies bibliography is somewhat marginalized; if it were not perceived as such, its place in graduate education would not have slipped as much as it has.
Thanks, Eleanor, for the fixed link. And my larger point about interdisciplinarity is that I think for it really to work, it needs to be regarded as a collective, not individual endeavor. In other words, when History of the Book becomes a perspective or an approach widely adopted by both historians and lit scholars, with strong input from a number of disciplines, it gains credibility and authority in a way that other kinds of initiatives may not.
I absolutely agree with you about the issue of interdisciplinarity. All the resources in the world will not foster interdisciplinary work if there’s not a collective appreciation for and valuing of such work. I wonder at times if the move to do interdisciplinary work in literary studies is more a matter of breaking down canonical boundaries rather than disciplinary ones.
Many working in book history have grappled with the issue of interdisciplinary work and what it truly entails. The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading &Publishing (SHARP) conferences often feature formal and informal discussions about how well book historians are really doing interdisciplinary work–it’s highly valued, but even here there’s a clear sense of how difficult that can be.
Interdisciplinarity is difficult for many reasons. One important reason is that one has to envision and perhaps create an audience informed about and interested in breaking disciplinary boundaries and pursuing multiple disciplinary methodologies and topics. In that sense, 18th Connect and NINES can help through their research environments, which offer access to a broad range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary archives. In the process, they will help create audiences that have a broader set of methodological and disciplinary givens.