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I finally got my technical difficulties sorted out. Here is the link to my project's BuzzFeed quiz: https://www.buzzfeed.com/earlynovels/fact-or-fiction-2h203

Sleuthing blog post!

5 min read

Prior to my employment at END, I'd never seen an 18th century edition of a novel (or, frankly, many contemporary editions of 18th century novels, either. The earliest book I've read is Huck Finn.) so many of the day's common paratexts and features were unusual and surprising to me. I'd never seen the word 'advertisement' used to refer to anything besides a product listing, I'd never heard of a subscribers' list. I'd never seen books with titles 20 words long, and didn't understand why those titles had so many semicolons in them. I'm a social scientist at heart, however, so the vast majority of my questions focused on the social world that produced the book-artifacts I held in my hands. How did this book move from my mind of the original author to my foam cradle at UPenn's Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, summer 2016?

As a result, I came to love the 700 and 710 fields of my catalogs. In these fields, all of the nonfictional names in a book's paratexts are listed and, if possible, authorized. The author of the text, the authors of the paratexts, the author of the epigraph, a former owner whose name appears on a bookplate or in an inscription, etc. In the best of circumstances, I can just search a given full name on VIAF, find it, an authorize it. Rarely, however, is this the case for the set of novels we're cataloging. For many names, only a last name exists, or none at all. In more challenging circumstances, a library bookplate has covered up an inscription, or else the inscription was written in some illegible hand. In many cases, as with the names of subscribers, the identities of these names are impossible to authorize, if I were to embark on such a task, even with a full name given.

While I could easily just leave a name unauthorized, I have come to enjoy the obscure successes of matching the name in a book to a name online. I've become a literary internet sleuth, combing through bad OCR of a dictionary of Scottish emigrants to Canada, or census lists and marriage licenses for small Virginia towns, or, my slightly morbib favorite, entries on findagrave.com. A book I cataloged recently featured a bookplate signed by the man whose residence, (according to an odd post on an odd website, www.askaboutireland.ie) hosted one of the first meetings of the Westmeath Hunt Club, an Irish organization of recreational hunters who made use of foxhounds. Another had a subscriber named Preserved Fish, a name that is, amazingly, not exclusive to this subscriber--there are at least two others, but this subscriber is the only one from Vermont. One inscriber was the close relative of an Australian colonist responsible for instigating biowarfare on an Aborigine community (He sold them poisoned flour).

My most frequent and most successful 700s Google expeditions are for the first names of publishers, printers, and booksellers listed only by their last name. Only rarely do I have the pleasure to find interesting back stories. Regardless, my frequent Internet detours have all been an incredibly interesting exercise in what search engines can and cannot do. In my conversations with librarians, and the history of librarianship, I've heard often that the advent of the Internet and Google at one time appeared to threaten the entire profession. If someone can simply type in keywords into a search engine, then of what use is a librarian's research skills and resources? Though I knew when I started that libraries and librarians are indispensable institutions, my constant (but enjoyable!) slog through the 700s has proven that to me in full.

Google's ability to predict what exactly it is you are looking for continues (terrifyingly) to improve, but I've found that its powerful algorithms often still don't get me where I need to go. I hit paywalls, French blog posts I can't read, OCR too gibberish-y for me to do a successful command+F search. Google doesn't know that when I search, for example, "smith dublin printer," I'm looking for someone, last name Smith, who worked as a printer in Dublin, and not looking for someone, first name Smith, in Dublin, who happens to be selling their ink jet printer on Craigslist. More scholarly search engines like VIAF or WorldCat or the ESTC or ECCO or the Oxford Biography Index &c. &c., are helpful in some ways but not in others: they often store more relevant and specific information, but at the cost of navigating a badly designed user interface and poorly linked data.

While I look forward to the web sleuthing of the 700s fields in each book I catalog, I'm so grateful when I find the information I need quickly and accurately. Working at END has encouraged me to rededicate myself to providing accessible, precise, user-friendly data, online and in print. I think more critically now about tagging, error-free text transcriptions, data organization, and online interfaces. The internet does a lot for libraries, and libraries do a lot for the internet, and my trials and victories in the 700s fields have me excited for the future of that relationship.

Blog post-materiality and the book as object

4 min read

Theory Thursday on July 1 helped me better understand the role of mediation and materiality in the book as object, and brought to light through a theoretical lens questions I had during cataloguing. On page 5 of “Knowing Books”, Christina Lupton writes that mediation and materiality are distinct, mediation representing an interface between reader and work that is temporally and materially transcendent. I wondered whether it might be possible to conceive of a definition of mediation that did incorporate some elements of materiality or was in some way linked to materiality, or whether the two really were separable. While I have not yet answered this question completely, my interest in the necessity of the object in connecting reader and text has grown as I have interacted with books that are valued for their status as material entities, and at the same time have been subjected to a process of time and use that has altered them as objects.

One of the questions that remained on my mind while cataloguing was the question of the book as object when some part of that book had been destroyed, abridged, or replaced with other matter. I wondered about the relationship between abridgments, new editions, or excerpts of books and the status of those books as objects and examples of materiality. What is the role of completeness, continuity, or wholeness, in the concept of a book as object? Throughout the process of cataloguing, I thought specifically about incomplete or altered objects in one of two ways: those that had been physically torn, annotated, or stitched together, or those that comprised edited compilations of other works now included by the publisher in one volume, or abridgments of once longer works. One of the most interesting examples of alteration to the book as object is the tradition of binding together periodicals received over a subscription period to form one larger volume.

Certainly, there’s a sense of continuity or comprehensiveness, even status, that comes with a complete set of matching volumes, a gilt-edged collection of encyclopedias. Part of the appeal of this, however, might at one time have been that the one who owned a complete set of encyclopedias did in fact possess a good portion of all officially recorded, general knowledge--a possession that, in the digital age, would be simultaneously impossible in physical form and accessible to everyone through the Internet. Still, the trend of buying books by the foot for show alone is not unknown, as evidenced by this website or a New York bookstore that came up in discussion, Strand Books. As an extreme example of the book as object, the Bible, although it certainly exists in many digitized versions today, still possesses among some groups a symbolic power that I’d argue is unusually concentrated in its status as object: without any particular passages read aloud, it is used to swear in some officials, and in some circles stepping on it (while others might argue it is “just an object”) is a high form of blasphemy.

Perhaps this question of the book as object, and specifically as spliced, desroyed, or abridged object, is most viscerally represented in works such as “Adventures of a Quire of Paper”, which we discussed during Theory Thursday on July 1st. This 1779 story is told from the perspective of an object which is both fragmented and inconstant in its physical character (it is atomized, torn, stitched together again) and remarkably continuous in its narrative voice. Christina Lupton writes that “a text that refers to its own mediation...represents a process that exceeds the moments in which a text is written and published” (5). Might the valuing of a book’s material nature as an essential component of itself in some way threaten that book’s reference to its own mediation, when its objecthood is altered over time? After cataloguing, I might have said yes, but the quire of paper presents a rather unusual case for the endurance of the books’ soul.

Genius works!

1 min read

If anyone's interested, here's one of my Genius pages (currently un-annotated) for a fragment of poetry in Clarissa. (Featuring Nathaniel Lee, produced by Harrison and Co., released 1784).

http://genius.com/Samuel-richardson-page-of-clarissa-with-fragment-of-lees-oedipus-annotated

Named Entity Recognition and the Rise of the Novel

A formatted and basically complete version of my first Theory Thursday writeup!

Blog Post Draft --Digital Confidence

4 min read

As English majors without a lot of prior experience with or exposure to digital humanities, the idea of using digital tools in conjunction with studying eighteenth century novels felt somewhat foreign to Colette and me at the start of the project. We agreed that one of the great things about END is the fact that it helps us reconcile these two fields, by demonstrating how digital tools can be integrated into the study of English. END emphasizes the fact that the humanities and the digital are not two totally separate spheres, and it’s been useful to see how the two can work together and reinforce one another. It’s been especially helpful to learn this through actually working on a project, as opposed to reading theory about digital humanities. Writing code in MarcXML while simultaneously paging through fragile eighteenth-century novels may sound odd, but it’s become routine and feels completely natural at this point, which says a lot about how successfully END links the material and the digital spheres.

Because this feels so natural, coding and digital tools as a whole seem less intimidating now. As Colette mentions in her post, so much of my intimidation in this realm has stemmed from my lack of exposure to it, while what exposure I have had has often felt discouraging. Here, however, the fact that I had no experience with MarcXML, and had never heard of topic modeling prior to this summer wasn’t treated as a drawback, and I echo Colette in saying how much this has impacted me. For instance, we’ve started playing around with the command line, and while we may not be able to do anything significant there (or even fully understand what it is, let alone what it does) knowing that it exists still feels significant. While I doubt I’ll use the command line much outside of END, it’s been so affirming to be treated as though I can learn these tools.

Because we’re in such a supportive and comfortable environment, and because we’re beginning to see how digital tools and the humanities can be related, we’re also motivated to learn more about digital tools. In the past, my perception of computer science, coding, and digital tools was that they belonged in the realm of the sciences or STEM; I felt intimidated by them, didn’t understand them, and didn’t really want to understand them, because it didn’t seem like there was much point for someone with my interests. As a result, the fact that END makes coding and the digital realm relevant to English and the humanities feels like a huge deal to me. If I’m being completely honest, my heart still belongs more to the humanities aspect of DH than to the digital one, but I do feel like I have a much better understanding of what it actually means to work with digital tools, and my attitude towards them is much less reluctant than before.

In discussing this with Colette, we both agreed that this evolution has been possible largely because of the encouraging, open setting we’re in at END. Being able to talk casually with one another and pose questions to the group makes the job less stressful and more fun, and it removes any degree of intimidation we may have felt at the start. We’ve both been struck by how we’ve never been made to feel bad about our lack of knowledge or understanding about a topic, and the way we’ve been encouraged and patiently taught has also done a lot to motivate us to learn more.

Social Cataloging

3 min read

A lot of the Early Novels Database project feels like common data entry. We see the paratexts, learn the various data fields, and plug and chug from one record to the next. Except for the very first week on the job which was spent learning with our more experienced peers, the day to day protocols have little to do with social interactions. Looking at it this way, the act of cataloging itself seems like it should be a solitary experience. That couldn’t be more wrong. The END Project in its entirety revolves around the idea of access, shared knowledge, and communal interest. Every step of the novel documenting process we employ here expands the sphere of communications exponentially.

Let’s start from the very beginning: many of the novels we work with were once part of private libraries. Their original owners and maybe a couple of friends and acquaintances had the opportunity to handle them, and that’s it. From there the novels passed from hand to hand until eventually they ended up here in one our libraries’ collections. With this simple move, private becomes public. However, though thousands of curious people can get in to interact with the novels, this level of access is not enough because for the most part these lesser known texts are still hovering in dusty obscurity in dark shelving units.

Now END plays a more active role in the socializing of these novels. Why are we cataloging these things? Who really cares that Blah-Blah a Novel was written in 1863? The answer is we do. There is a reason we, the catalogers, sit in a single room together for nearly seven hours Monday through Friday when there are plenty of places (warmer places) we could spread out to. Instead of burying our heads completely in clicking keys and XML displays we ask questions, share amusing footnotes, and work together to puzzle out whether messily written inscriptions say “Bill” or “Belle.” This isn’t just for the sake of accuracy in the records, but for our own curiosity as well. There is something exciting about the act of discovery that compels us to share our finds, if for no other reason than one person finds it interesting and another might as well.

So far this is only one group of catalogers in one room, but the END has branched off to another school as well and is hoping to bring in even more. Now there is twice as much exposure for the novels as we swap back and forth with check-ins, discussions, and all manner of live interaction. We get to know each other in this digital humanities community. On top of that we are generating a discourse through our records.

By far the largest step cataloging takes into the social sphere—and the last step of our process—is digitizing various pages of the novel and throwing them up on to various social media platforms. Illustrations and titles that used to only be seen by a handful of people over the course of a lifetime have become available for literal millions to observe. It is quite common of the course of a cataloging day to hear someone casually mention tweeting one of their pictures or commenting verbally on another person’s withknown post. To put it simply, cataloging with this project is a highly social experience not just for the catalogers but for the novels as well.

Draft of blog post on END, digital methods, and confidence

3 min read

Abby and I discussed our experiences at END this summer as women and as humanities majors. Both of us have often felt uncomfortable learning STEM-related or digital techniques in school, particularly in male-dominated environments; we ended up sharing many sentiments about this summer’s END program as a space for learning and gaining confidence with methods and technologies that we have often felt averse to, or shut out from, in classroom environments.

I shared my memory of learning Marc XML, the computer language we use at END to catalog books and their metadata, during training week. I was a little nervous to start this learning process. My experience as a woman has included countless classroom environments in which teachers and peers have discouraged me from approaching numerical sequences or computer languages, subtly conveying to me that I am not naturally apt at problem-solving and that someone else will always approach and complete a puzzle more quickly and thoroughly than I could. I appreciated how during this initial Marc XML lesson at END, Alice taught the language in a way that was both welcoming and validating; I felt that I was given time and room to learn, but also that my intelligence and capability were affirmed and acknowledged.

Coming into work every day in an environment that recognized my capacity to learn made me more deeply consider how my aversion to learning about computers and numbers is not due to any “natural” inaptitude in this subject, but instead, to the vast amount of subtle messaging I have received over my life that has caused me to internalize the narrative of my own inaptitude. Abby and I agreed that END’s status as an all-woman space this summer has enhanced our experience gaining confidence with computers and digital methods. We also discussed how END’s emphasis on the digital as a helpful complement to more traditional humanities methods – an emphasis that contrasts with widely-circulating narratives of the digital and the humanities as opposing, antagonistic fields – was helpful. END’s environment of validation of our intelligence as women, as well as its demonstration that digital methods are relevant to us as humanities majors, have made us much more comfortable with (and interested in) using digital methods.

Abby pointed out that in classroom environments, attempting new, computer-related methods for research has often seemed intimidating, and that she often stuck with her usual research methods and avoided trying new techniques. I identified strongly with this experience. We both feel that END has changed this instinct in us, and has made us more likely to try computer-related methods in the future. We talked about feeling less inclined to give up if a digital method does not work immediately, understanding that its not working is probably due to a fixable issue, not to our inherent inability to understand computers. Abby said that she now knows it’s not necessarily her fault if something goes wrong in a digital process—it’s probably just an issue with Java! I feel similarly; I now know that there are many glitches that can come up when using digital methods. Usually, the glitches are in the computer, not in me.

https://twitter.com/18cparatextbot

Here's a link to my new Twitter bot....it tweets bits from 18th century prefaces/To the Readers/Introductions, etc. If anyone has a full text that has any of those, I'm on the hunt!

JHUJobs Job Search

Job! Editorial assistant, Johns Hopkins University Press.

Project Report: checkpoint #3

1 min read

My project concerns itself with analysing the relationship between gender and ethics via the "monster metaphor" in 18th and 19th century literature. Methods of analysis include deconstructionism, close reading, print culture studies and digital humanities.

My website, http://nmd-alessio.com/home/, features about 12 short essays about the above topics, project management and the data mining surrounding it. There are separate sections of the website for topic modeling (intent, files, results, social and cultural analysis of results), Introduction to the topic, and, lastly, but not leastly, information about the END project.

The point I'm currently at: completing plain text full body corpus of over 200 novels for a topic model run through Mallet scheduled for Thursday.