An interesting discussion has broken out on Early Modern Online Bibliography (henceforth, EMOB) regarding Bob Markley’s and Laura Mandell’s 18thConnect project. In their discussion Eleanor Shevlin made an interesting distinction:
Also, it might be useful to distnguish between tools that serve as delivery systems (I regard Project Muse and JStor and the like as such) and those that perform additional, often quite different functions such as acting as finding aids, invitations to reconceive textual landscapes, and more. In this second category I would place ECCO, EEBO, and even, though decidedly quite different, Google Books. When I find and download an article from say, JStor, I do not give too much thought to its printed form that served as the source for the PDF. My response to texts found in ECCO and EEBO is quite different–and I am spurred to ask questions about the materiality, the tactile features lost in digitization, the accuracy of the information provided in notes/records, and much more.
My first thought was that it might be hard to maintain this distinction, which I think is more about varieties of use than about inherent capacities of technologies; we can always use a shovel to stir our tea. I also remember sitting in a graduate bibliography seminar many years ago with the man described as the “pope of textual editing,” and being told over and over again that xeroxes needed to be checked word-for-word against originals (because of the danger that xeroxes wouldn’t operate simply as “delivery systems”). And at the time, I thought this was just another example of his Tragic Sense of Life, though nowadays I’m much more sensitive to this question of how media technologies affect our views of “content.”
But I also understand what she’s talking about, I think: that a breakthrough technology like the ESTC, for example, made possible for the first time very different views of our period’s publishing than ever before (an argument that Paul Korshin, for one, made here in 1998). And the 18thConnect project is attempting to pull together a group whose impact could have the potential to do what the ESTC did for our scholarship.
One of the obstacles, however, that I think the 18th Connect folks might run up against is something I saw mentioned in Sharon’s EMN post regarding Web 2.0 models of scholarly collaboration and sustainability, where she quotes Cohen and Rozenzweig’s pertinent warning about collecting history online:
Collections created on the web through the submissions of scattered (and occasionally anonymous) contributors do have a very different character from traditional archives, for which provenance and selection criteria assume a greater role. Online collections tend to be less organized and more capricious in what they cover.
None of this is to say that these projects shouldn’t be attempted, but that the scholars involved (and the scholars using it) might reflect further about how to work against the digital media’s inherent tendency towards diffusion by thinking of institutions, structures, protocols that would lend greater cohesion and flexibility to a project like this. I wish them the best, and hope to hear more soon about the continued development of the project.