Are ECCO and Burney Classroom Necessities?


We all know how indispensable these text-bases have become to eighteenth-century research.  The question many of us face from skeptical librarians controlling acquisitions budgets is whether these text-bases are crucial to undergraduate teaching.  It seems to me that a strong case can be made that the existence of these text-bases changes the nature of what can be taught in the classroom.  Whether we look at large century-spanning text-mining projects such as Matthew Wilkens’s study of parts of speech and allegory or the three very targeted assignments recently described by Laura Rosenthal, Eleanor Shevlin, and Dave Mazella on The Long Eighteenth, these text-bases  make new kinds of assignments possible.  Are these new kinds of assignments tied to a new kind of reading?  Is there a new kind of learning that can now take place in the classroom, and if so, is it an important kind of learning?

Many of us mounting arguments on behalf of acquiring these text-bases would be interested in hearing readers’ responses to these questions.  Have these text-bases become essential, or do they merely contribute to an alternative but no more important kind of learning experience than what the classroom offers without them?


11 Responses to “Are ECCO and Burney Classroom Necessities?”

  1. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Anna, you raise a number of good points here.

    In my experience librarians are actually usually allies in the acquisition of these tools, and they respond particularly well to requests for purchase. The role of libraries and the importance of electronic access and distribution means are issues that they too are very much dealing with. (I will be posting wtihtin the next few days a description of an article the eelectronic resources director at my library worte that addresses the need to improve metadata and the like for scholarly and student use).

    At this point, these databases are changing the type of educational experiences we can offer our students in studying the eighteenth-century. That said, I do think that one can still construct a very fine eighteenth-century course without them. Yet in perhaps the not-too-distant future (as educators also further develop pedagogical applications of these resources), these tools might well be seen as essential.

    On a different note, there was an interesting article in the Washington Post a few days ago–A Virtual Revolution Is Brewing for Colleges by Zephyr Teachout (real name–teaches at Duke Law School)– about the potential for more and more distance education as the means by which students earn degrees. These tools seem extremely useful ways to enhance the experience of online students and enrich their course experience.


  2. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    I also meant to add that these tools offer significant opportunities to foster information literacy skills while also enhancing subject matter. Because of the liberal arts’ long-standing reputation in fostering analytical, research/evaluation, and communication skills, they could be viewed as important to continuing this role in our increasingly digital world.


  3. Anna Battigelli Says:

    The ACR blog has a posting on “A Dozen Newspaper Survival Tips For Academic Librarians” pertaining to this discussion. It connects the failure of newspapers to adapt to the internet to the failure of libraries to adapt to it. A series of suggestions include both going digital and creating niche collections tailored to the college community.

    The problem of the latter suggestion is obvious: who decides what niche best addresses the college’s needs? The question of whether or not to invest in a text-base such as EEBO, ECCO, or Burney becomes, then, a question of whether or not early modern positions are central to the college’s mission. This may be an important issue to discuss further.


  4. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Shortly after I started teaching, a generous and education-oriented rare book dealer in Cambridge, MA. gave me a seventeenth-century newsheet recording the votes of the House of Commons. It was important, he insisted, that students see what the printed page looked like in the period they studied. I have used that newsheet–carefully protected in a plastic pocket–every semester I have taught. And it has helped students begin the process of imagining a textual world very different from ours.

    ECCO, EEBO, and Burney allow a much fuller imaginative engagement with the early modern world than that single sheet offers. For many students at colleges without substantive rare book rooms, such exposure to the early modern printed page would have once been impossible. But with these digital text-bases comes an opportunity to extend students’ sense of literacy by presenting them with a visual history of printing. The historical window these text-bases provide is more important than ever. Seeing the printed page helps students begin the intellectual labor of piecing together a period different from their own. The searches allowed by ECCO and Burney and the access to texts provided by EEBO present opportunities to enter a world not fully accessible to many undergraduates until now. As students slowly master a different set of printing conventions and learn to detect those conventions in transition, they are pushed out of the small box of “now” that so often limits their historical perspective.

    As Eleanor says, it is, of course, possible to teach a good eighteenth-century course without these text-bases. But it no longer seems adequate.


  5. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    That you have the actual physical print material from the period to bring into the classroom, Anna, seems very important to me. Physical artifacts offer a reminder that the digital images aren’t the “real thing” and are often not faithful even visually to the original. One of the drawbacks to these databases is that it is easy to lose sight of the physical attributes of the original (the paper, watermarks, binding, dimensions). Such items also enable the tactile experience of these print products.

    The issue of the physical also dovetails with some of the issues of the ACR blog posting that Anna mentions above. We need to preserve and protect physical copies even as we move toward embracing and harnessing the power of new technologies.


    • Anna Battigelli Says:

      I agree completely. I would also add that students’ engagement with primary sources from periods different than their own is now crucial to a liberal arts education.


  6. Benjamin Pauley Says:

    I think, as is so often the case, the answer depends on what we’re trying to do. For someone in an English department, this question is, of course, tied up with much broader trends in the discipline. (I’d be very keen to hear from people in fields other than literature: any historians out there?)

    If the aim is primarily to teach students to be careful and sensitive readers of literary texts (that is, good close readers, either in a strictly formalist sense, or with a tincture of one or another of the methodological persuasions with broad currency), then the answer is probably “No”—you don’t absolutely need ECCO, etc. to teach those habits of reading. (Indeed, using facsimiles, as I’m doing for an entire semester with one class, may actually create new difficulties on this front: the foreign-ness of eighteenth-century print, together with the lack of explanatory footnotes, can make things *harder* for students.)

    But (and you knew there was a “but” coming, right?), if the aim is to provoke students to think historically, to think about the world of print in which the works we teach arose (as it seems to be for Anna and for Eleanor, and probably lots of the people who’d be reading this blog, myself most emphatically included), then access to a rich archive of primary works would seem to be a must.

    Among the best teaching experiences I’ve had came during an interim appointment at an institution with a respectable rare books collection. Being able to show the students the actual books in their differing sizes, with their various bindings, their paper and print of different qualities, and so on, made the subject much more vivid: the students were palpably excited by the oldness of the *books* in a way they had never been excited by the oldness of the *texts.* I was reminded of those class sessions this weekend, when I was lucky enough to get a tour of the closed stacks at the Clark Library, and found myself surrounded by shelves upon shelves upon shelves of actual books, many of them texts I teach regularly. The experience was a bit melancholy, actually, for someone who’s spending so much time trying to work with Google Books and the Internet Archive: I was reminded forcibly of the distance between even the best digital surrogate and the real thing. It put me in mind, in fact, of Smokey Robinson’s declaration that “A taste of honey is worse than none at all,” and made me wonder whether working with facsimiles was actually showing students the things I’d set out to show them.

    But teaching, like so many other things, is the art of the possible, and I fully expect to keep using whatever facsimiles are available to me, since I *am* interested in exploring in classes the sorts of questions of print culture that require at least facsimiles where real books aren’t to be had.

    It occurs to me that this line of conversation has mainly emphasized whether one needs resources like ECCO in order to have texts to read. (Which is how I use ECCO and Google Books: as repositories from which to draw texts that I intend to read in the same way I’d read the book, if it were available to me.) I’d be curious to hear if there are people who are finding these sorts of resources indispensable for teaching for the ways they facilitate other sorts of activity (searching, text mining, etc.)


  7. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Your point, Ben, that the response to this query will depend on the purpose/goals of the course is an important one to keep in mind. And that point was behind my remark that one can still teach a very fine eighteenth-century course without these tools.

    I actually use these databases for purposes other than accessing texts for the sole purpose of reading. The absence of notes and the like make these databases not a viable substitute for editions equipped with introductions, notes, and glossaries, and I tend to rely on such editions for the required texts. (Yet, I have assigned exercises to annotate short texts–and supplied a list of resources to assist students with such a task.) I find the databases very helpful for examining textual production, the corpus of a particular bookseller (what are his or her specialties, for example, as well as looking at the geographies of what texts are being sold where), supplementary material such as ads and library or auction catalogues, book prices (in some cases). I also use the database pedagogically to examine spin-offs and sequels, the popularity of titular phrasing and keywords, translations of works, various formats in which a title appears, and more. Students will have seen Terry Belanger’s video, Anatomy of a Book and have had the opportunity to work with the facsimile sheets that one can purchase to accompany these works. Also, I supplement with a visit to West Chester’s special collections (we do not have that much at all–though we do have a complete set of Shakespeare’s folios) and works from my own collection (can purchase some very fine examples quite reasonably on ebay and also in “used” bookstores; my collection, however, centers around a publisher I am working on).

    I also teach courses in book history. When I was a lecturer at Maryland I developed with a colleague in the library a survey course that was an introduction to the field and had it approved as fulfilling the history/social sciences gen ed requirement. I will be launching this into course next year at WCU, though I have already taught slices of it.


  8. Anna Battigelli Says:

    Eleanor’s list of the many different sorts of assignments these text-bases make possible is an impressive response to Ben’s good question.

    I think these text-bases are classroom necessities, but not because they are easy to use in the classroom; getting undergraduates familiar with these tools requires substantive work. But once that work is done, students’ historical and literary horizons are expanded. They are free to cultivate literary and historical sensibilities in ways that are almost impossible without access to these primary sources. My students remarked today that reading their third Jane Austen novel was far easier than reading the first, though it was considerably longer. We can apply their awareness of the consequences of immersion to using these text-bases. Expanding students’ historical and literary horizons and helping them become more literate is no small thing. As we argue for sustaining period courses and early modern (particularly eighteenth-century) positions in English Departments across the country, this is a point that is worth emphasizing.


  9. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Anna has mentioned a few times the importance of students today studying earlier periods (and I couldn’t agree more–that’s a real necessity in my view), and these tools do offer extremely fresh ways to bring the culture of the past to life. And yes they do require hard work in preparing for their use, but it is well worth it. I also think that students gain important, relevant skills just by learning to search effectively and grapple with handling the results they obtain intelligently–and that’s another plus.

    I would like to teach an eighteenth-century lit course in conjunction with a British history or art course–but I’ve not found a way to do so yet at WCU. DOing so, however, would provide the additional time needed to immerse students truly in working with these databases.


  10. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    My comments have referred to the undergraduate classroom primarily, but even so I should add that we also have an obligation to let students know about the limitations of these databases–especially bibliographically speaking–and the dangers of treating these databases as representing the universe of textual production. In my undergraduate seminar last fall, I was pleased that I had students countering arguments made by peers who were treating results as definitive.


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