Common Knowledge?: EEBO, #FrEEBO, and Public Domain Information (15 Jan. 2016)

If you work in the humanities and you’ve used a database, a dictionary, or Google Docs in the past ten years, congratulations! — you’re already doing digital humanities. This was a point emphasized by Syracuse University professor Chris Hanson in a panel discussion on the digital humanities that I attended after the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon workshop last fall. Grad students, faculty, and a librarian from a range of disciplines underscored that, according to this definition, anyone can do digital humanities — in fact, many already do — as long as they have access to digital information and the tools to manipulate it.

Not everyone has that kind of access, however, and this became painfully obvious for Renaissance-studies scholars a few weeks later when ProQuest discontinued access to the Early English Books Online (EEBO) database for Renaissance Society of America (RSA) members. Previously, those who didn’t have EEBO access through a university’s library subscription — such as independent scholars or those at smaller schools with smaller budgets — could gain access by joining the RSA, a professional organization rather than a library. After a Twitter uproar, ProQuest quickly restored access without much of an explanation, but not before Renaissance scholars could write about the implications of a private business’s controlling access to what is ultimately public domain information.

EEBO’s origins lie in World War II, when the London Blitz threatened to destroy English libraries and the thousands of medieval and Early Modern books they contained — a potential massive loss of information. University Microfilms International (UMI) stepped in to scan the texts for future generations … and for profit. UMI began to offer microfilmed titles in the English Short Title Catalogue (SCT) to university libraries through print-on-demand services.[1] For decades, Renaissance scholars outside the UK relied upon libraries’ microfilm reprints to do their research. Seventy years later, UMI is now ProQuest and the microfilmed SCT is now EEBO, a digitized and expanded collection of scanned texts. Just under half of the (rapidly expanding) current collection was released into the public domain last year. But anyone without library access will have to wait until 2020 for ProQuest’s exclusive rights to expire in order to access the complete collection.[2]

A library with the ceiling caved in. Beams, rubble, curtains, and ladders are heaped in the center. Three men in hats and wool coats inspect the books that remain on the shelves.

The private library at the seventeenth-century Holland House was bombed in the London Blitz. Books in national libraries were quaking in their dust jackets.

I’m one of the lucky ones: Syracuse University participates in the EEBO Text-Creation Partnership, so I have access even to texts that haven’t been made fully searchable. Without my university library access, I couldn’t possibly be an Early Modernist studying Jesuit literature. Syracuse is a long way from the Huntington and the Folger libraries, let alone Cambridge or Oxford. Not only do I not have a research budget as a PhD student, but some of the most prestigious libraries limit access to students already working on a dissertation.. If I hadn’t spent time browsing EEBO’s collections, I wouldn’t even know that I wanted to write about Jesuit literature. I may eventually have read that Richard Crashaw, a seventeenth-century poet and Catholic sympathizer-turned-convert, was raised by a virulently anti-Catholic father who wrote a tract called “The Bespotted Jesuite.” But without EEBO, I would never have had the opportunity to actually read the elder Crashaw’s text for its obsession with the maternal role of the Virgin Mary in Catholic notions of salvation, and then compare its horrified images of breastfeeding with the glorifying images that appear in the younger Crashaw’s baroque — even mystical — poetry. Without EEBO, I couldn’t read about the Maryland colony’s connection to the English Jesuit mission; I couldn’t perform full-text proximity searches comparing discourse on Eucharistic flesh and New-World cannibals; and I couldn’t crosscheck textual references to English Jesuits to add to Six Degrees of Francis Bacon.


A poorly copied black-and-white page of text titled “To OUR LADY OF Hall, and to the Child JESUS”; the rest of the text is half-obscured because text from the opposite side bleeds through.

A page from William Crashaw’s “The Bespotted Jesuite,” aka the “Jesuites Gospell” (1642). Read might be a generous verb.

But not everyone is so fortunate: in the few days when some RSA members believed they would lose their only means of accessing the full EEBO, proposals to make a #FrEEBO circulated on the internet. The conversations reminded me of when I graduated from undergrad and realized, to my horror, that I no longer had access to the Oxford English Dictionary. I found myself keeping younger classmates “on retainer,” pestering them to please, please look up the seventeenth-century definitions of this word so I can revise my writing sample to apply to grad school. Imagine being a scholar trying to publish a journal article for tenure and having to do the same thing — but with every single primary text you’re analyzing. Unlike the OED, the texts in EEBO are public domain, after all, even if ProQuest’s digitizations aren’t; there’s no reason scholars couldn’t create a parallel database that’s wholly public domain from inception.[3]

Digital texts have their shortcomings, of course, including other forms of inaccessibility as well. Untranscribed texts are wholly inaccessible to those with visual impairments. Databases like EEBO offer OCR transcriptions of some scanned texts, and while the good ones can be helpful, quality is inconsistent and frequently bad, especially for Early Modern typefaces and spellings. (If anyone has had a good experience using a screen reader with EEBO, let me know in the comments.) Digital texts also necessarily misrepresent the material object it’s based on by transcribing it into a different medium: a scan of a book obscures its size, its texture, its color, its smell, and even, in EEBO’s case, its cover. (More about that next week!)

A black-and-white scan of two pages of text fills the top two-thirds of the image; a transcription fills the bottom third. The transcription is filled with punctuation marks to signal line breaks and diacritical marks. Each transcription has a yellow post-it note icon in the middle of sentences. The text that fills the margins of the scan is not included in the transcription.

A side-by-side comparison between the scan and the transcription of two pages from “True relations of sundry conferences had between certaine Protestant doctours and a Iesuite called M. Fisher” (1626) in EEBO. To read marginal commentary, you have to click the yellow post-it note icons — a very different experience than the Early Moderns had.


But shortcomings shouldn’t stop us from finding new ways to increase access to these texts. One aspect of Jesuit philosophy that’s always resonated with me is that education is inseparable from social justice. Extensive higher education is required during Jesuits’ training in part because they are meant to share that knowledge in service to others. Education itself is a common good, and as an aid to education the cultural heritage contained in databases like EEBO shouldn’t be limited to scholars attached to the wealthiest schools — or even to scholars alone. If public scholars are truly committed to democratizing knowledge, our work shouldn’t end at merely presenting our research to the public, which only reinforces the ivory tower’s hierarchical relationship to the public. Our service to the public should extend to enable universal access to the primary sources we work with, so that anyone who wants to — no matter their situation — can discover not only our knowledge but also how we arrived at it, and how they could make some new knowledge themselves.




Ashley O’Mara (@ashleymomara | ORCID 0000-0003-0540-5376) is a PhD student and teaching assistant in the Syracuse University English program. She studies how Ignatian imagination and Catholic iconology shape representations of sacred femininity in Early Modern devotional writings. In her down time, she writes creative nonfiction and snuggles her bunny Toffee.


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