18th connect and the sustainability of scholarly collaboration

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.



10 responses to “18th connect and the sustainability of scholarly collaboration

  1. Anna Battigelli

    I agree that we should worry about both the tendency toward diffusion and about what might appear to be an inherently haphazard result when many scholarly resources are “aggregated” rather than systematized (though I understand the argument in favor of aggregation).

    Like Dave, I’d like to see the case for how electronic infrastructures like NINES and 18th Connect promote interdisciplinarity, and how they depart from delivery systems such as JSTOR, Project Muse, EEBO, ECCO, etc.

  2. Eleanor Shevlin

    My thoughts about the delivery distinction arose from work with Google Books and the many complaints that users seem to have about GB that, in my mind at least, arise from expectations that texts on Google Books are meant to be used as one would use a book. If one attempts to use GB as one would use a printed book or PDFs in Project Muse or JStor, then one will be frustrated and sorely disappointed. To me this resource–especially in the books available as limited previews–is a tool that operates in tandem with the print form of titles. It requires quite different operating strategies (akin to that video that circulated a few years ago about the medieval tech help-desk/visit). For example, if one tries to browse the book by turning pages, then one will soon reach the limits of access.

  3. Dave Mazella

    Anna, in my view aggregation is going to be a fact of life with digital resources, because of the factors that Cohen and Rosenzweig pointed out: these are produced separately by various individuals and then rounded up in an ad hoc manner. The key, IMHO, is developing the kinds of finding aids that allows us to create a good useful “dashboard” for accessing and using such resources.

    Eleanor, I must admit that I’ve never been that interested in Google books, for all the reasons you offer here: it feels like I’d be better off looking at the printed book. So treating it as a finding aid instead of a full-text resource makes sense. I’d love to see more about your strategies, and for that matter, the link to the medieval tech help-desk.



  4. Anna Battigelli

    I, too, would be interested in hearing more about Eleanor’s strategies for making Google books more functional.

    I would also be interested in hearing more about how aggregation works and does not work in creating a functional scholarly environment.

  5. Anna Battigelli

    I don’t know whether this is the helpdesk youtube video Eleanor had in mind, but it seems comically relevant to her point about knowing which strategies to apply to a “text.”

    • Dave Mazella

      Hilarious. I’m sure this is how I sound to our tech people at UH. It’s worth remembering, too, how much we’ve naturalized the technology of books, in ways which our students never will again.

      I’m thinking about the aggregation question, and may have to put off my Drunk History post just to answer it. DM

  6. Eleanor Shevlin

    Sorry for the delay in replying but I just had not checked this blog for a few days. And, yes, Anna, this is exactly the video to which I was referrring–thanks for posting! (I often put a link to this in my course’s Blackboard sites).

    I’m about to expand my 2008 MLA paper on searching Google Books (which may take longer than I had first thought because Google Books has changed its interface a few weeks ago (right before I left for the SHARP conference), and I have not had much opportunity to assess what has changed.

    In any case, here are some excerpts from the paper that will give you an idea of how I’ve used this tool:

    “My first extensive forays using Google Book occurred while I was a fellow at the Library of Congress no doubt shaped my sense of this tool as an incredibly powerful search engine and not a virtual library, for I had the luxury of ordering the physical copies of search results as soon as I discovered potentially relevant works and having them delivered to my desk a few hours later. The project itself—the study of an 18th-century publishing firm whose principle, James Harrison, had been misidentified in all 20th-century accounts of the book trade—also affected my approach. Although I was in the early stages of this study, I had already examined countless editions of the firm’s publications, and the material evidence I had gathered from these investigations could not have been accomplished by uncovering digitized black and white images of Harrison print productions on Google Books. Instead, I was seeking connections on a number of levels—the trajectory of accounts that had lead to Harrison’s misidentification; the relationship of his print corpus to the production of other luxury and leisure consumer goods; the network of printers, booksellers, manufacturers, musicians, artists, naval officers, poets, editors, and tradesmen that formed part of his extended circle; and current secondary works that made any note of James Harrison, Harrison and Co. or its titles. Google Book Search proved ideal—and continues to be—for such purposes. As Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine has remarked, “What search uncovers is not just keywords but also the inherent value of connection…Search opens up creations. …As a song, movie, novel or poem is searched, the potential connections it radiates seep into society in a much deeper way than the simple publication of a duplicated copy ever could” (Kevin Kelly, “Scan this Book!” New York Times, 14 May 2006 [http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/14/magazine/14publishing.html?_r=1&pagewanted=print].

    Using such keywords as personal names alone or coupled with place names, occupations, or titles of works, and material goods such as “filigree tea caddy,” I uncovered connections and evidence that I probably would have never found through traditional means. For example, a search on “M. Harrison Red Lyon Court” (whether placed in quotation marks or not) turned up the full text of an 1884 volume offering the admissions records for St. Paul’s School in which the entry for the “other” James Harrison with whom my study’s publisher/printer/author has been conflated appears. Not only does this entry definitively place him in school at a time when 20th-century accounts have this Harrison establishing his London firm with the assistance of his mother, but surrounding entries reveal information about other members of the book trade and their sons. Another search yielded the Catalogue of the Montague Guest Collection of Badges, Tokens and Passes (1930) in which I discovered that the silver medals awarded to contributors to Harrison’s Wit’s Magazine for prize-winning poems did in fact exist—I had been unsure whether these were a marketing ploy—and I was able to see what they actually looked like once I procured a copy of this volume. Yet another search yielded a 21st-century academic work on butterflies that afforded insights about the contributions made by Harrison’s Dictionary of Natural History to entomology, while a recent work on maps of Hawaii discussed the competition between Harrison and another publisher of geographical works and included a comparative assessment of the accuracy of his map over that of this competitor. This quick sketch indicates some of the connections Google Books has enabled me to discover across a span of works dating from the late eighteenth-century through 2008. Google Books can also be extremely useful for more traditional literary projects. A student in my undergraduate seminar on the Booker Prize was interested in examining the use of the child narrator in Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha but was having difficulty finding secondary criticism. Searching for the subject term “child narrator” in the MLA Bibliography database yielded 21 hits with limiters, 35 without—and only one or two were relevant to his interest. In contrast, Google Books returned 683 hits for the phrase, with the first three pages of results offering a wealth of pertinent sources. Additionally, the results included a few linguistic studies, adding a dimension to his examination that he would have otherwise not thought to pursue” (Shevlin, “When Is a Book Not a Book?: Using Google Book Search”, MLA 2008 conference, San Francisco, CA).

  7. Dave Mazella

    Thanks, Eleanor, and I hope to see this appear soon somewhere.

    Your use of Google Books, which exploits the serendipity of retrieving information found in additional texts that provide further contextual clues for investigation, indicates one of the uses of the finding-aid, as a generator of insights and surprises potentially more useful than a “transparent” search vehicle pulling up precisely the facsimile requested. It pulls you along from item to item, and retrieves (fragments of) contexts as well texts.

    I hadn’t thought of it that way, and indeed haven’t used Google Books much, but I think this is a way a lot of people are using such tools nowadays.

    I had a similar experience, though, when I was writing my Cynic book, and used different keyword searches on the open internet, in various databases, and in every index and resource I could find, and turned up contexts that I could investigate, refine, and synthesize with additional, directed research. It takes time, and reflection, but it’s one of the reasons why these tools are so powerful, in the hands of users who know how to manage them.

    I do think, though, that you’re right, that the combination of having Google Books in the middle of the LOC reading room, is one of the reasons why the combination was so powerful. You didn’t have to wait a week for ILL to deliver the book you found online.


  8. Eleanor Shevlin

    That I had almost immediate access to the books when I first started using Google books definitely influenced my positive reaction. Yet I will say the positive impression has been reinforced through later use. West Chester is in a consortium that gives us access to Penn State, U of Penn, Bryn Mawr, Rutgers, etc., so I am typically able to get books ordered through that system in 1 to 3 (tops) days.

    I also use Google books to find material in books I own when the index doesn’t do the job. In fact, I am using the tool this way more and more.

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