researching without regular access to ecco?

This post got its inspirations from two places: first of all, from an intriguing exchange between Laura Rosenthal and Eleanor Shevlin on EMOB about the benefits (and perils) of “getting lost in the archives,” whether these were digital or paper-bound; the second bit of inspiration was from some emails I exchanged with CB, who is currently spending the summer at a research library with access to both special collections and ECCO items, with the knowledge that her home institution will provide neither when she returns from her research trip.

So what should the ECCO-less scholar do with the limited time and budget we all face when pursuing our research and writing projects?

Here are the suggestions I made to CB from my own experience, though I’d be interested to hear others speak about how they balanced the tradeoffs between print/manuscript and database time, especially when they were traveling off-site for access to both. I should also say that I always struggle with time management, but have found that when I follow these strategies I have the most success.

What follows is probably stunningly obvious to most people who have a lot of research experience, but I think there’s some value to making it explicit, to see if others find it useful (or wrongheaded), and to help me follow this advice more consistently.

  1. Before you go anywhere, start deciding your project parameters (chronologically, generically, authors, etc.) as far in advance as possible, so that you know what’s inside and outside your inquiry. If you’re not sure, decide it arbitrarily, to accumulate as complete a picture as you can, then make a conscious decision to revise on the basis of your results.
  2. When allotting your time to the databases, remember that ECCO keyword searches, when done broadly, produces lots of results that you can’t necessarily process during your limited library time. Save that time for the searches most directly relevant to your topic, and if necessary divide up the searching (chronologically, generically, by keyword, etc.) so that you are able to complete each segment and have your results in hand when done by the end of your visit. You can also send yourself results via email, which you can save and archive and analyze later, even if you cannot search remotely. Try to save everything to a key drive or email or both, then spend an hour or two afterwards every day sorting through the results to find patterns and plan the next day’s searches and potential items for closer analysis.
  3. Whenever I visit a research library, I always bring my laptop, and maintain internet connection so that I can access Googlebooks, the various catalogs, and my existing Zotero libraries. I have been using Zotero for some time to archive everything possible, whether primary or secondary texts, while I read and take notes in Zotero.
  4. When you are done with your trip, budget additional time to sift and sort the accumulated results to reflect on how they might direct further inquiries.
  5. When your traveling time is over, remember that there are tons of free web resources that will give you access or at least leads to appropriate primary texts: ESTC can allow you to keyword search titles and authors within chronological ranges; a good research library catalog will allow you to do the same with their ECCO holdings or Special Collections; Ben Pauley’s 18c Book Tracker, when coupled with Googlebooks, Internet Archive, and the Hathi trust, will allow some degree of full-text searching across and within texts, though searches there can be problematic, unpredictable, or both; finally, don’t discount the possibility of “reverse searching” full-texts of JSTOR, MUSE or other scholarly article databases for your keywords and seeing which primary texts turn up in discussion.
  6. Be alert to patterns as they emerge, and welcome serendipity.


In many ways, the ECCO database can lead you to believe that its results are comprehensive, but as Sayre Greenfield pointed out at the last ASECS Digital Archive panel, we need to be quite cautious in our interpretation of negative results, since negative results need to be confirmed across multiple searches and databases.

In other words, you’re always better off doing a variety of more limited searches within and across a variety of sources, even if some of these are available on the open web.  Similarly, don’t discount the power of Google for turning up stuff in random library catalogs, rare bookseller sites, or scholarly documents. If you are careful with your keyword selection, you can pick up these kinds of things pretty easily.

Finally, here are some questions you could ask yourself:

  • So what is the chronological, geographic, and generic scope of the project?
  • Are there particular literary and non-literary discourses that need to be reflected in your sources?
  • What kinds of sources would be best for answering your questions?
  • Which masterworks could serve as key illustrations of your theme?
  • Do you have a shortlist of authors who will be particularly important for your argument?

And so forth.

So lay out your boundaries, propose to yourself a workable segmentation of the topic for whatever time you have available, and don’t worry about not catching everything in a single search. Having a good reflective research process is much more important than having continuous access to ECCO, since your time will be broken up anyway, and you need to refine the topic and treatment as you go along.



3 responses to “researching without regular access to ecco?

  1. Eleanor Shevlin

    Thanks so much for very fine advice for research trips, Dave.
    Depending on the research project, the questions might differ; the tips here seem especially well-suited for undertaking a thematic project. Particularly when one is working on a publisher, publishing locale, set of texts within a narrow time period, or another, more definitive topic, one might want to undertake strategies listed in point 5 before actually making the trip. In other words, just as the researcher no doubt established a list of special collection texts (with call numbers) that he or she wants to view in advance of the trip, the same can be done with ECCO using the online library catalog from an institution whose holdings include ECCO as well as with ESTC.
    Frankly, I would lean toward concentrating on the use of special collection texts and spend less time on ECCO (unless I would then need to travel at great expense and time to access this tool once home).

    If the researcher will be abroad, he or she should download any available Google books that might be needed on a flash drive. Many Google books available through searches in the US are not available in Europe–and even the UK. Also, if working outside the US, I would preview in advance the databases available at the archive, rare book room, or library. If at the BL, for instance, one could use the JISC version of ECCO. Similarly, the BL and other UK holdings would allow you to use the John Johnson online collection–and there are many other examples.

  2. Dave Mazella

    Hey, Eleanor, I was hoping you’d chime in here. Some of the ideas here reflect your comments over the years, e.g., about the usefulness of Googlebooks as a finding-aid. That’s one of the reasons why I thought that crowdsourcing this would be helpful, especially when people’s projects vary so drastically.

    I think the notion of preparing beforehand for a trip like this is really key, but practically speaking I find myself really crunched for time prior to going away. It’s when I’m on site that I have the freedom from distractions to “plan,” except I’m already there. So much of this is exhortation to myself, and advice that others might usefully heed.

    I’m curious about how you think about the balance of time given to various kinds of sources: is this a conscious decision of yours during the planning? And how do you deal with the dead end/serendipity/getting lost factor, which threatens to undo your plans?

  3. Eleanor Shevlin

    First I should note that I have the Folger and the Library of Congress in DC where I live and then access to Philadelphia holdings when up at my university. Plus, my university now has Burney and ECCO I and II. I well realize how extremely fortunate I am.

    So much of my research is done in the UK. Because of the distance and expense, I often spend a good amount of time planning for a trip. I order books in advance so they will be there when I arrive. I correspond with archivists, make train and housing reservations for visiting local archives, etc. Sometimes I have ordered digital documents in advance to give me a better idea of a collection or to save the expense of travel when I know the archive has little else I need. When I didn’t have access to Burney, I designated time to use this tool but also to then to search/track down new leads. And now that I do have access, I still use Burney, ECCO, etc when at the BL for various checks or again to follow new leads found in print or ms sources.

    I give much advanced thought to how much time I want to spend in which archive. I look at evening hours (BL or London Metropolitan Archives, Westminster Archives, for instance), and take hours of operation into account. Some of the archives I’ve used are appointment only–Bank of England, for one. While all of this may sound quite rigid, I am very flexible with my schedule if discoveries warrant. For instance, when I’ve travel to a local archive and find an unexpected trove, I will either arrange to stay longer, return the following week, or make arrangements to have material copied. I know that some tasks–working through Chancery court records, for example, at Kew–will be hit or miss because of insufficient catalog info, so again I realize that from the start.

    I try to sort through my notes and information for a while each evening, but even so, I often find myself not having enough time when I return to go through everything properly–much to my chagrin.