Gale Cengage gave SUNY schools a great opportunity this semester by offering free trial access to ECCO, Burney, and NCCO. I, for one, learned a lot from working with undergraduates in my Gothic Novels course as they searched ECCO for relevant material for their final research papers. Those papers were mixed, with some outstanding essays and some less successful attempts. I summarize my experience below:
- ECCO must be part of a strong digital collection in order to be fully usefuL. Spotty digital holdings make using ECCO difficult. For instance, without a subscription to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, new users find it difficult both to identify the author of a lesser known work and to assess that work’s historical or literary significance.
- Using ECCO requires both competency with secondary sources and access to those sources. Though some students used many secondary sources, even ordering books on interlibrary loan, many were more timid about using JSTOR and Project Muse than I anticipated. Now that we purchase almost no books, galvanizing interest in scholarly books feels more difficult. Am I imagining this?
- Using ECCO was great for new critical readings. My students wrote lively and insightful papers using the search function to demonstrate the significance of words, phrases, or images in a given text. The search function, however imperfect, helped students “read” more attentively.
- Using ECCO posed significant challenges for historical readings–ironically the very readings that would theoretically most benefit from such a resource. I prepared handouts, explained key historical moments and figures, and discussed competing approaches to these novels, but finally students required written accounts of contexts that they could study on their own. Printing excerpts from secondary sources, particularly secondary sources that provided differing points of view helped. The take away: students using ECCO would benefit from a textbook/anthology that clustered primary and secondary sources and provided suggestions for further reading in ECCO. This seems like a productive printing possibility.
Some found ECCO a chore; others liked it; some quietly noted that it grew on them. All of them acquired an appreciation for the vastness and richness of the archive at their fingertips. Most felt students should have access to it. Using ECCO stretched us all as readers and interpreters of eighteenth-century texts, never something to be dismissed.