“Even as more and more texts become widely available through digital surrogates, studies of the book remain grounded in physical bibliography.”
–Stephen Tabor, “ESTC and the Bibliographical Community”
This is a heady time for literary scholars using digital tools. Visualization and text tagging software offers new ways to analyze old texts’ rhetorical and linguistic features. Docu-scope, for example, is being used by Michael Witmore, Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library, to chart maps of Shakespeare’s plays using 1000-word strings. The resulting maps posted on Witmore’s blog, Wine Dark Sea, reveal that Othello, for example, shares linguistic features, such as frequent first-person forms, with Shakespeare’s comedies. Asking why this is so may provide a more detailed understanding of Shakespeare’s craft.
Other data mining projects, underway at Matthew Jockers and Franco Moretti’s Stanford Literary Lab, broaden and transform the practice of literary study, in part by advancing what Moretti calls “distant reading.” These projects forgo traditional “close” reading of individual texts to analyze computer-generated data derived from running thousands of texts through specific programs.
Elsewhere, annotation tools, such as Digital Mappaemundi, allow annotation of digital artifacts such as, in DM’s case, medieval maps and geographic texts.
Aggregating platforms, including 18thConnect and NINES, create virtual environments where digital work can be shared. Digital texts, images, maps, data, video, and audio can be collected and annotated for projects difficult to imagine just a few years ago.
Finally, the digital world has nourished new participatory models of scholarship, advanced, for example, by Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Planned Obsolescence.
These new and often visually alluring scholarly ventures chart new avenues of inquiry and reshape literary studies as we know it. Stanley Fish has blogged about them; Witmore has been interviewed by Forbes, introducing them to the commercial world; and granting agencies like the NEH have responded by dedicating specific funds for such projects.
But in the shadow of these projects, runs a slower, methodical, far less glamorous digital task on which all other projects rely: ensuring that digital texts retain bibliographical integrity. As Stephen Tabor put it in a 2007 comment used in the epigraph above, “even as more and more texts become widely available through digital surrogates, studies of the book remain grounded in physical bibliography” (The Library 8:4, 369).
EEBO Interactions offers a unique venue for scholarly dialogue about bibliographical matters. Though it describes itself as a “social network for Early English Books Online,” it might be more accurate to think of it as a site for asynchronous conferencing about bibliographical matters. A broad range of readers–Proquest editors, graduate students, theologians, literary scholars, historians, philosophers, independent scholars, curators, librarians and library administrators, digital editors, undergraduates, bibliographers, and textual critics–have already posted queries or comments, often correcting bibliographical entries or expanding our understanding of a given text. The comments appear under the following rubrics:
Comments about this copy: Comments include requests that missing title pages be restored, or that two variants counted as the same copy by both ESTC and EEBO be distinguished. They range from providing resolutions of complex pagination problems, to asking general book history questions.
About this work: This section allows readers to suggest the broader context of a given text. Nick Poyntz of Mercurius Politicus fame identifies one pamphlet as an advertorial for a cup lined with antimony and notes that two customers died after using the cup. Other readers correct publication dates, post questions about attribution, note additional authors not mentioned in the EEBO or ESTC entries, or track the evolution of a text from one edition to the next.
Notes: Aliases can be discussed here, something helpful in reading recusant literature. This is also the space to discuss a text’s plurality–its relation to other texts it cites or responds to, and its reception.
Suggest a link: This space allows for links to ODNB entries or to pertinent articles, particularly useful for acquiring a fuller understanding of little known works.
Perhaps most innovatively, EEBO Interactions invites scholars and librarians to talk with one another and with representatives from the commercial world that produced EEBO. EEBO Interactions is the only purpose-built space designed to bring together members of the bibliographical community–normally working in isolation and apart from one another–to collaborate for a moment or two on the joint endeavor of linking the past to the present. This is the kind of experiment that benefits everyone.
It would be great to hear readers’ responses to EEBO Interactions.