Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Tag: eebo


Three years ago I wondered about the possibilities that could be opened up if scholars were able to annotate texts in Early English Books Online. Now you can: EEBO have just launched EEBO Interactions, a social networking site that is linked to EEBO and allows registered users to comment on and discuss the texts.

Having had a quick play about with it, there seem to be three key respects in which EEBO Interactions will be a big step forward. The first is the breadth and accuracy of EEBO’s metadata. In particular, Interactions allows updates to and discussion about the bibliographic provenance of EEBO’s texts. A lot of the authorial attributions for anonymous pamphlets on EEBO are drawn from the short-title catalogues produced by Pollard & Redgrave and by Wing. While the revised editions of both catalogues corrected some dubious or mistaken attributions, if you have spent any time browsing EEBO you will probably have discovered examples where you disagree with the attribution.

One of the great features of Interactions is that it provides fields to add your own information. If you get to a text and someone has added a gloss you think is wrong, you can discuss it on the page itself, or send the other user a message to have a one-to-one discussion with them.

That brings me to the second benefit, which is one of sociability. EEBO have structured Interactions along the lines of Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites. Users have a user-page where they can put information about their background and interests. Users can send each other messages and bookmark sites of interest, which allows you to see whether other people are working on texts you are studying. I think this will have real benefits for students and scholars across the world, as they start to discover they have colleagues with shared interests whom they never previously knew existed.

The third benefit is one I find hard to express concisely, but which can I suppose be summed up by the phrase “better scholarship”. If that seems a bit intangible, hopefully the context in which it struck me will make it clearer. One of the guidelines for Interactions suggests that users:

Provid[e] concise and informative commentaries on some of the less frequently discussed texts, as are currently available via the EEBO Introductions Series.

EEBO Introductions is a series of short essays on some of the more obscure texts included in EEBO’s corpus of books and pamphlets. It’s intended as a gateway into early modern texts that might otherwise seldom or never be read. At the moment there are nineteen Introductions, which perhaps reflects the fact that they have been centrally managed up to now.

In the future, if you are a student working on a particular text, or an established academic with material on a particular source, you can leave it in your files or you can post it to Interactions. I think this has all sorts of possibilities. It could be a way for undergraduates and postgraduates to get involved in a wider scholarly community, by posting essays on a particular text or snippets from their research that would otherwise never find an audience. It could function – as seminars do now – as something like an intermediate step between undergraduate/postgraduate study and publishing your work in peer-reviewed journals. In ten years time, posting an essay on Interactions or similar sites could be as normal a part of scholarly practice and career structures as submitting a proposal for a conference paper or sending an article for consideration by a journal.

Exposing your ideas or research to a wider audience in electronic form has benefits for students, whether they are pursuing a career in history or simply interested in the period. But it would also have benefits for scholars – if you have devoted your BA dissertation, say, to a particular text, you will probably be far more of an expert on it than the most experienced academic. Interactions will hopefully provide a platform for one group to speak to the other, and vice versa – with the ultimate benefit that knowledge and interpretations of texts can be shared rather than remaining with their originator.

Not many people have signed up as users yet. Given that (at the moment) all contributions have to be approved by an editor, that is probably not a bad thing from EEBO’s perspective, but hopefully the userbase will grow with time, and hopefully the editorial control will be loosened once the site grows. Otherwise, without a large userbase the risk is that the site will never take off. It will need lots of people making lots of comments and notes to really get the most out of it.

So in the spirit of encouraging others to sign up and use the site, here is a link to my own first contribution, on Canterburies dreame: in which the apparition of Cardinall Wolsey did present himselfe unto him on the fourtenth of May last past: it being the third night after my Lord of Strafford had taken his fare-well to the world (London, 1641). Have a look and see what you think. As ever, there is also a good discussion going on at Early Modern Online Bibliography.

Free access to EEBO

From 22 February, readers of Early Modern Online Bibliography will have access to Early English Books Online. If you have never had a chance to use this resource than you have the next three weeks or so to try it out.

Digital history and early modern studies

A few bloggers have recently been posting their thoughts about two works on digital history:

Two points stood out in particular when I read them. The first was on how digital sources shape an audience’s experience of them. As Patrick Gallagher put it:

Oral and video histories, understood as artifacts, have become very important for bringing visitors closer to the reality of a story. (JAH, 109)

The discussion in the JAH was mostly in relation to the wider public accessing historical sources. But can digital sources also alter the reality we as scholars reconstruct from a source? This is not something really considered by the JAH discussion. By contrast, contributors to the Companion were very alive to this, with Bertrand Gervais asking:

Does a literary text retain the same status once it has become virtual? What is the status of any text in today’s era of hypertexts and linked computers? What type of materiality are we dealing with? What forms of reading, what forms of knowledge? (Companion, ch. 9)

The second was the training graduate historians will need to thrive in a world where digital history is commonplace. As Steven Mintz put it:

Many search committees are favorably impressed by graduate students who hve developed online resources or an electronic portfolio. We have a responsibility to give our grad students the training support they need to meet these rising expectations. (JAH, 216).

Both points have made me think about how they apply to the digital source that, without a doubt, I use the most: Early English Books Online.

EEBO is a tremendous resource. It preserves sources that are fragile and which risk deterioration in the coming years. It greatly broadens the accessibility of early English printed works. It makes it far quicker to find and read texts. The power of its search engine makes it possible to carry out in minutes analysis that would previously have taken days – particularly with the increasing number of e-text transcriptions being produced by EEBO-TCP. As a part-time student, I would find it difficult to do my Masters without it.

But for anyone studying written communication in early modern England, EEBO brings with it its own historiographical and epistemological challenges.

First, the sheer convenience of EEBO might risk distorting our perception of early modern written communication. The last ten to fifteen years have seen a huge expansion in interest in print culture, particularly in cheap print. But work by a number of literary critics and historians – synthesised by Harold Love in his Scribal Publication in Seventeenth-Century England – has also reminded us of the importance that manuscript retained in English culture during the seventeenth century. So one question that the rise of digital history throws up is what impact might the relative availability of sources have on future critical and historiographical trends.

Secondly, digital reproduction of a text inevitably changes the way that we approach it. Texts cannot be fully understood without reference to those who wrote them, those who produced them, those who read them, and to the form that the texts took. As Joad Raymond has put it:

The meaning of a text is the transitory product of a particular relationship between a reader or group of readers within specific circumstances, who encounter not texts but books. In this creative encounter the material construction of a book, its typography, binding, the feel of the paper, the situation in which it is read, whether silent or out loud, in a library, a crowd or a secluded room; in youth or in age; patiently or urgently; in a cloistered or revolutionary world; all these play upon the meanings which a reader and a text can produce between them. (Raymond, The Invention of the Newspaper, pp. 2-3).

In reading physical copies of early modern pamphlets, we are already many steps removed from the experience of contemporaries reading them. We can perceive the range of meanings they might have carried only through a glass darkly. But does removing the physical, material interaction with a text further distance us from the ability to reconstruct those meanings? The quality of paper, the size of sheet used, the colour of the ink – all of these are factors which can influence how a text is read or perceived. Reading them on a screen today is inevitably a different experience to reading actual copies.

None of this is to diminish the importance of EEBO and other pioneers of digital early modern history. But it does make me wonder how best to assess the impact of digital history on early modern studies. It is likely that it will push historians in some directions rather than others. If so, it will be important that today’s generation of grad students are equipped not only with the right programming skills, but also with the right skills to engage with the implications of digital history for historical and critical theory.