Wed 13 March 2013 at 11.00 am

Electronic Enlightenment

Mark Rogerson

Taking Place: Willow Building (room W01), Headington Hill Campus, Oxford Brookes University, OX3 0BT

Mark will talk us through sourcing and processing of the content that comes from the early modern period. He will explain the technicalities of publishing this vast amount of information on the website.

Missed this event?  Find out what our students thought in the summary blog below...

by Anne Mellar

Mark Rogerson, Technical E­ditor of Electronic Enlightenment, opened a window onto what it takes to convert content into an online scholarly resource. This electronic endeavour deals with early modern manuscript correspondence in a digital age. Exploring the letters and lives of the long Enlightenment (1640-1840), the project is one ‘which in itself sounds very simple’, but that hides its editorial and technological challenges in plain sight.

Academic projects such as this, Rogerson notes, nearly always take huge effort to produce, survive for two-to-three years (possibly more with long-term archiving strategies) – and then disappear overnight. Electronic Enlightenment was officially launched in 2008 and is still going strong. At its core are 60,647 (and counting) items of correspondence sent by 7,476 correspondents across Europe, the Americas and Asia.

The talk illuminated issues of technology, publishing and access. The small team behind the non-commercial project based at the Bodleian Libraries would love for it to be free. Yet much of the database is recent annotations and critical analysis of the original correspondence, meaning it is still in copyright. Therefore, royalties are generated for over thirty contributing publishers via a subscription business model. The challenge with this model, Rogerson explains, is demonstrating to people what’s in the archive and attracting future subscribers.

The technical editor revealed that it’s important to appreciate the ‘awful lot’ of editorial work that goes into a project such as this due to the sprawling nature of the data. The letters are treated not just as content, but are designed to be brought up to a scholarly level through accompanying biographies and critical apparatus. EE depends largely on editions of letters from the last century. Materials also exist in the form of earlier editorial hand-me-downs, but one problem there is that pre-C20th editors were perhaps more likely to modify the text to suit their agenda.

For the technologically curious, Rogerson explained that the spine has to be taken off a printed book so that it can be scanned and rekeyed in India – and, crucially, not OCR’d. While Google Books is a fantastic resource, its reliance on Optical Character Recognition causes a 3% chance of misrecognising letters and words during digitisation (why else would you find references to the internet in the C16th?), which hinders serious academic research. The key thing about EE is that its text is rekeyed and analysed by editorial team. Moving forwards, the database looks to focus on born digital content created specifically for it. EE is also looking towards collecting high-resolution images and digitised manuscripts – although digitisation is very expensive process that can run into tens of thousands of pounds.

Leaving aside the task of standardising haphazard spellings such as name variants (Tomas / Thomas), simply dating a letter can be extraordinarily complicated. This alone requires 70 data fields. Many dates are only approximate, while countries also chose to switch between the Julian and Gregorian calendars at different times – and that’s just the beginning. While services such VIAF (the Virtual International Authority File) are working on collecting individuals’ information together, still it’s difficult to say which data really is correct with authority. Being ‘the only techie person on the project, unfortunately’, these issues become the task of ‘some poor soul … me’ Rogerson jokes. And while he started out purely as technical adviser, he has since became more involved in building the website, as well as increasingly ‘obsessed’ by its content.

EE is a project that requires editorial diligence, working out how to attract subscribers, and being sensitive to the particular nature of the content. For the budding publisher, the talk painted a bigger picture of how publishers can breathe new life into their printed publications in a digital age. It’s important to recognise that negotiating copyright is crucial, and in this respect each of EE’s publishers has a different contract. Publishers should look for new digital opportunities to draw further royalties, and reach academic communities worldwide, through revitalising their printed books. Enlightening stuff.

Anne Mellar is studying for an MA in Book History and Publishing Culture at Oxford Brookes University. She has a particular interest in the early modern book trade – especially Renaissance drama.