Anyone working even briefly with archives learns immediately that cataloguing is an art, not a science, and that the successful use of archives demands familiarity with its cataloguers’ idiosyncrasies. In the first part of his meticulous “Some Problems in ECCO (and ESTC),” James May provides a hard look at cataloguing problems in both ECCO and ESTC. May’s article has inspired two forthcoming roundtable discussions at EC/ASECS and ASECS and this blog, so it makes sense to provide at least a cursory review of his arguments here. For May, bibliographical problems limit ECCO “as a set of digital facsimiles” (20). Below is a list of the topics he covers.
Holdings: Identifying the copy digitized is problematic because ECCO lists only the library holding the source copy, not the shelfmark.
- If the library holds more than one copy of the digitized text, “readers can’t know what is digitized unless its identifiable from MS annotations on the copy digitized” (21).
- If the source library’s cataloguing is ambiguous, duplicate entries for the same copy can result. Among the examples citied is the case of the National Library of Scotland, which provides different shelfmarks for each volume of Edward Young’s 2-volume Poetical Works. ESTC and ECCO thus list two copies of Young’s Poetical Works in that library, though there is only one (2-vol.) copy.
- There are “editions in the ESTC (some reproduced on ECCO) that are not separate editions but only reissues of earlier editions” (23).
- Examples include the false attribution of An Account of the Two Brothers, Perseus and Demetrius, . . . Collected from the Grecian History, written by the author of Busiris, . . . the Universal Passion, Satires & c. to Edward Young. Additionally, both ESTC and ECCO “fail to list Young as the author of A Sea-Piece (Dodsley, 1755).
False claims regarding publishers and places of publication, and dates:
- Faulty information taken from title pages is often absorbed uncritically into the ESTC and ECCO. For May, “one problem with the ESTC and ECCO is that nobody surveys and edits its results” (25). He suggests that “there ought to be a way for scholars to post notes tagged to ESTC and ECCO entries for other scholars to read—a suggestion Rob Hume made . . . two years ago” in The Eighteenth-Century Intelligencer (n.s. 21.1.16).
Format errors: The format of smaller books in particular is often incorrectly listed. ECCO’s entry for The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift, vols. 15-17 (1765), incorrectly calls those volumes 12mos rather than 18mos.
Incomplete or misrepresented works: “ECCO offers 16 of the 17 volumes of The Works of Johnathan Swift,. D.D: D.S.P.D. With Notes . . . By J. Hawksworth (Dublin: Williams, 1767-1768)” (25). Sometimes frontispieces are missing.
Legibility of ECCO’s digital images:
- The images lack crispness
- They “fail to reproduce red-lettering on title-pages” (26).
- Some pages are unreadable or incomplete. See Vol. 3 of Smollett’s Continuation of the Complete History of England, 1762 (pages 167-68, 258, 321, or 328).
- Footnotes and marginalia are sometimes obscured.
- Stains, and gutter loss are problems, with the latter obscuring “the third on all versos between pp. 14 and 24 of Swift’s A Tale of a Tub 1711: ESTC N136369, T49839, and N13640.
- “Images are sometimes distorted relative to their proportions in height and width” (26).
- Later editions are less frequently digitized, though they are often rarer and thus arguably in greater need of digitized preservation than earlier editions. Many of these subsequent editions were published in Ireland or Scotland, and thus ECCO is correspondingly weaker for a study of Scottish and Irish books and booktrade.
- First and revised editions are sometimes neglected. As May argues, “roughly half of the pre-1775 editions of Young are to be found in ECCO” (29). Only five of the nine editions of The Force of Religion appear in ECCO.
- As May points out, “one must know to exclude ‘not’ from a title search” (27)
- Sometimes searches for titles and dates fail if the work has not been tagged with the proper date
- ECCO’s searches miss “a certain percentage of words” (27).
Selectivity: Like Adam Matthews, which digitized periodicals, ECCO did not use a team of scholars in the process of selecting what should and should not be digitized. May argues that “more scholarly rigor was no doubt needed when the filming by Gale and its predecessors was done to decide which copy should be filmed” (28).
May concludes that “scholars need to provide a little noisy feedback to corporate ventures like ECCO if future projects are to benefit from their expertise” (29).