Best Practice Session EEBO and ECCO

On Friday 16 February, the Codifiers project presented a Best Practice Session on EEBO and ECCO at the Faculty of Arts here at Leiden, intended for anyone from the university with an interest in these databases. The meeting started with highly informative explanations by Duncan Campbell (EEBO) and Julia de Mowbray (ECCO) on how the databases were compiled, how they could be searched, and what kind of information could be retrieved. Nest, four invited scholars, Marika Keblusek (Leiden, Art History), Helmer Helmers (Leiden, English, literature), Anita Auer (Leiden, English, sociohistorical linguistics) and Suzan van Dijk (Utrecht, French, literature, gender studies) showed us what working with these databases meant for their research as well as their teaching. Afterwards, their was the opportunity to practise with the databases in the computerlab, under the guidance of the Codifiers project members, who had prepared a set of tasks for this purpose. Participants were asked to report back on their findings during the concluding panel session, which included most of the previous speakers as well as Richard Todd (Leiden, English, British literature since 1500).

The topic for the session was "New electronic resources, new questions in research and teaching" (see also "New databases, new research questions" elsewhere in this Weblog). To what extent do these new databases allow us to ask different questions for our research, and how will they affect our research?

Marika Keblusek noted that she no longer has to travel to many different libraries all over the world in order to have access to material she needs for her research, and also, now that we have access to EEBO here at Leiden, that she no longer has to print out texts frantically whenever she visits a library that does have EEBO. Helmer Helmers showed us that the title of the database is not quite accurate, as EEBO contains much more than merely old books. Anita Auer demonstrated the many uses ECCO has for her research as well as her teaching, showing that students now have access to original material such as letter writing manuals and books on local dialects informing us of how individual sounds were pronounced at the time. Suzan van Dijk is interested in translations of Belle van Zuijlen’s Lettres de Lausanne, and she showed how the English translator of the letters coped with Belle’s frequent implicit sentence connections, a problem by which every reader of the letters is confronted. It also became clear, to mention a linguistic example, that the word brother could mean "brother-in-law" at the time, which is something to be reckoned with in all research that includes family relationships at the time. My own favourite example of how to make use of ECCO in a novel way is that it allows you to find that influence between authors need not be reciprocal: by doing a full-text search with one name and an author search with another and then reversing the operation I found that Priestley refers to Lowth’s grammar but Lowth does not refer to Priestley’s. Next the question has to be asked why this would be so (there is a very good reason for this, but I would never have considered the question if I hadn’t found out about this). Richard Todd, finally, mentioned the fact that EEBO should perhaps include different copies of texts of the same print run, as during the Early Modern period books were usually corrected while coming off the press; thus, no copy of a single book is exactly alike. This would allow us to study textual differences in an unprecedented amount of detail.

It was noted, moreover, that it seems unlikely that we will start producing more publications just because we have access to more data in less time than ever before. We will probably simply use the time gained to process our data, as in the past, but produce more accurately researched and thus higher quality output! It was generally felt that we are living in what feels like revolutionary times. More such databases should be produced, also outside the field of English, and universities should learn to look ahead and make money available for the acquisition of such databases in order for the scholars employed by them to be able to compete with the rest of the world.

We would be interested in hearing about more novel ways in which ECCO leads to new research results, and I would like to encourage readers of this forum to share ideas with us here. Not exactly new research questions, but two particularly exciting research findings may be found in the screenshots on this page.

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