Last September, the Bodleian Library organised a conference entitle Revolutionising Early Modern Studies? The Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership in 2012 to mark a decade of the Text Creation Partnership (TCP)’s work producing searchable, full-text transcriptions of works in Early English Books Online (EEBO).
JISC was pleased to support this conference by sponsoring two students bursaries. In return we asked the students to blog about their impressions and thoughts on the issues raised at the conference.
This first post is by Jacob J S Halford, University of Warwick.
There are few scholars who would deny that the terrain of academic scholarship is being changed radically by digitisation. Like any new thing embedded in digitisation is both optimism and fear concerning its use and potential abuse. There will always be those who laud novelty and its apparent improvement upon the old methods and resources, for such people the digital documents created by the EEBO Text Creation Partnership are a powerful new tool that will revolutionise the world. Others are, however, less praising in their evaluation of it; with digital tools, such as the EEBO-TCP, seen as threats to the tradition and craft of historical research; a threat to the book as a material object, an easy way for people to gain a shallow knowledge of texts, and a means to allow bad copies of books to become entrenched by users as the platonic copy of the book.
The Oxford conference on the Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership was so stimulating because despite being full of converts and prophets of this technological development, it still considered the different perspectives and problems that the more ‘traditional’ type of scholars who see digitisation as a danger may harbour. Speakers from the conference highlighted both the giddying heights and possibilities that the resources created by the EEBO-TCP and ProQuest resources give whilst remaining conscious of the limitations and problems that they may also present its users. In doing so it provided a wonderful opportunity for scholars in the early modern period to reflect on the implications and ramifications of digital resources and the methods that we use to interrogate them without getting too caught up in abstract theoretical knots. The following are a few insights that I gained from the conference.
Many of the papers highlighted the potential research that can be done using the EEBO-TCP texts. The team of researchers from CREME at Lancaster University for instance highlighted the way in which EEBO-TCP texts can be used for corpus linguistic analysis of historical texts on a scale never before seen and some of the powerful corpus linguistic tools that are being used to interrogate the texts. Others such as Simon Davies, Peter Auger, and myself, highlighted how using key-word searches enabled researchers to consider a greater breadth of sources then would have been possible pre-EEBO-TCP. Others were using the EEBO-TCP texts as a springboard for larger projects such as creating critical editions of Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, or creating a database of poetic form.
EEBO and Teaching
One of the most enlightening sessions was the EEBO and teaching strand with Heather Froehlich, Mark Hutchings and Leah Knight. They elucidated upon the ways in which EEBO and the searchable, key-stroked texts allowed educators to use texts with students in new and exciting ways. Heather demonstrated the wealth of tools that her students were using to trace patterns within texts. Mark Hutchings spoke about how, at the University of Reading, the existence of key-stroked texts gave students the chance to consider editors’ impact on how texts are read, with each student using a key-stroked text as the starting point for their own edition. Leah Knight finished the session with a passionate paper that explored the pitfalls and benefits of EEBO, derived from using it over the past ten years of teaching using EEBO with her students.
The limitations of EEBO
Not everyone at the conference highlighted the benefits of the EEBO key-stroked texts. Some drew attention to some of the limitations it has as a resource. There will always be a fair share of pedants at any gathering who spend, in my opinion, far too much time searching through everything with fine-grained combs for errors. The EEBO conference was a great place for such pedants to come together and share in the minute errors they have spotted in the transcription of the texts. The efforts of these people should be praised as it takes a degree of fastidiousness that I will never possess to notice the obscure mistakes made by the transcribers and such work is a helpful reminder that the EEBO-TCP texts, like anything else, are not a perfect resource. As the presentation by Rebecca Welzenbach from the EEBO-TCP team reminded us, these texts are made by humans and whilst the error threshold is set at 99.995%, errors will, and do, still occur. Perhaps all users of EEBO-TCP texts should remember Martin Mueller’s words concerning them: “Messy at the edges is better then nothing.”
Now that the dust has settled and the multitudinous ideas from the conference have had time to distil in my mind, I am more able to reflect clearly on the question the conference posed namely: is EEBO-TCP is revolutionising early modern studies? Whilst I remain optimistic that the EEBO-TCP corpus provides an exciting resource that allows different questions to be asked about the past I am, however, less naive in this optimism. I realise that the digital humanities, whatever that even means, is not a tool that will replace the more traditional forms of research. It is not a surrogate for archival research, close reading of texts, and a deep awareness of the social and political contexts of books and documents that only time, effort, and knowledge can provide, but it is a powerful tool that provides new perspectives and different forms of analysis of texts. These new analytical strategies are not threats to historical research but they can, and must, be used to complement and enrich our current modes of analysis. Of course, one could say digital humanties is simply a current fad that will pass away, as neon tights did in the 80s and Tamgotchis and Pokemon did in the 90s, that conventional forms of scholarship will prevail against modern trends in the long term. Yet, from looking at the research being done using tools displayed during the conference I can’t help but think that those who chose to neglect them, who fail to utilise these fruits of modernity, are depriving themselves of a form of analysis that can enrich any study of the early modern period, and do so at their own expense and loss.
I would like to thank the supporters of the EEBO-TCP 2012 conference namely, JISC, ProQuest, and the Bodleian Libraries’ Centre for the Study of the Book for generously providing me with a bursary to attend the conference.
Thank you, Jacob!