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Conference Organizers reflect on “Revolutionizing Early Modern Studies”? EEBO-TCP in 2012

This conference report was contributed by Judith Siefring, a TCP editor at the University of Oxford, with contributions from Pip Willcox, also an editor at Oxford and the main organizer of the 2012 conference. 

The publication of the proceedings of the conference “Revolutionizing Early Modern Studies”? The Early English Books Online Text Creation Partnership in 2012, held in Oxford on the 17th and 18th September 2012, was a cause for great celebration for those of us involved in its organization. The conference coincided with the tenth year of production for the TCP in Oxford and it allowed us to reflect on the impact that the corpus has had on research and teaching in the early modern period, and to explore planned and potential developments for the future.

The conference was opened by Dr Richard Ovenden, Associate Director of the Bodleian Libraries, who has been an important advocate for the TCP since its inception. Richard introduced our keynote speaker, Dr John Lavagnino of King’s College London, who delivered a superb survey of “Scholarship in the EEBO-TCP Age”. John set the tone for the whole conference by exploring the philosophical questions and practical challenges of digital scholarship. He explained the importance of the TCP production model – transcribed rather than OCRed text – and considered the kinds of work that the corpus allows scholars to do, either uniquely in digital rather than print form, or very significantly faster than previously possible. John also introduced what would become a recurring theme in the conference – that EEBO-TCP is “everywhere in early modern studies, though largely hidden: overt citation and discussion are minimal”. This citation problem has been followed up recently in a SECT project focus group on digital citation, and research methodologies in the humanities remains a topic ripe for further discussion.

The first panel, EEBO-TCP: Practice and Potential, was opened by Becky Welzenbach, the TCP’ s Outreach Librarian, who gave delegates an overview of the current state of the TCP. She was followed by Martin Mueller who presented a thought-provoking talk outlining his work on linguistic annotation of the TCP corpus, looking in particular at his work on MorphAdorner. Martin subsequently wrote an interesting blog post on the conference, and his ideas for the future of EEBO-TCP. Martin was followed by Marie-Hélène Lay who provided a detailed exploration of how to deal with spelling variation in early modern French and English. Panel One was completed by Elizabeth Scott-Baumann who discussed the database she has created with Ben Burton, which offers early modern poetry marked up by form and meter. This first session gave a real sense of the careful and detailed development work currently being undertaken, based on EEBO-TCP materials, and of some of the challenges presented by using early modern materials for research.

Peter Auger opened the second panel, Early Modern Reception and Response, with a fascinating discussion of how EEBO-TCP has allowed him to explore early modern English responses to French poets. The TCP corpus has enabled Peter to build on earlier research by allowing him to identify additional sources. This sense of building on and reinforcing earlier research was itself reinforced in Simon Davies’ discussion of early modern demonology. Mary Erica Zimmer, like Peter and Simon, gave a clear sense of the kind of detailed and specialist work that the TCP enables in her talk on Spenser’s “Letter of the Authors”.

These stimulating panels were followed by a poster session, which showcased some of the projects which have used or are related to EEBO-TCP in significant ways. The poster session was, in a packed schedule, necessarily short, and the publication of the proceedings of the conference offers a welcome opportunity to ponder these projects at more length.  James Cummings illustrated the productive ways that EEBO-TCP materials can be enhanced and reused for new purposes. James also joined Ian Gadd, Giles Bergel, and Pip Willcox in a poster exploring a project which will be of great interest to EEBO-TCP users, the digitization of the Stationers’ Register. Jayne Henley provided a striking poster showing her work on editing texts in Welsh for EEBO-TCP. Jim Kuhn, Sarah Werner and Owen Williams of the Folger Shakespeare Library showed a poster focusing on their plans for interoperable digital editions of early modern drama. Judith Siefring’s final poster on SECT: Sustaining the EEBO-TCP Corpus in Transition, described the project’s focus on assessing the impact of the TCP corpus, for which all of the posters and panels at the conference have supplied such valuable input.

The third and final panel of the first day of the conference was a superb illustration of the ways in which the TCP is being used in teaching. Heather Froelich presented her paper, co-written with Richard J Whitt and Jonathan Hope, on the TextLab course run at the University of Strathclyde, which fosters collaborative working to explore text and language in detail. Mark Hutchings then spoke about his course which uses EEBO-TCP materials to teach students editing theory and practice. Leah Knight surveyed her ten years’ experience using the TCP in the classroom and the challenges that this has brought with it. This excellent panel, in its focus on pedagogy, provided a useful counterpoint to the impressive and detailed research work outlined earlier in the day.

Day Two of the conference opened with Panel Four, on the subject of the politics and practicalities of editing. Daniel Carey and Anders Ingram opened with an engaging paper on their work creating an edition of Richard Hackluyt’s Principal Navigations based on the EEBO-TCP transcription. Giles Bergel followed them with a timely and thought-provoking discussion on the politics and poetics of transcription. This very practical engagement with the challenges of digital editing was followed up by Michelle O’Callaghan and Alice Eardley’s presentation of their work creating digital editions for the Verse Miscellanies Online project. Sebastian Rahtz and James Cummings closed this fascinating session with an exploration of how they have worked to bring TCP encoding into line with more recent versions of the Text Encoding Initiative guidelines.

Panel Five concentrated on the work being done by the Corpus Research on Early Modern English (CREME) team at Lancaster University. Alistair Baron, Andrew Hardie, Paul Rayson, Stephen Pumfrey, Alison Findlay and Liz Oakley-Brown gave a series of papers exploring the potential of the TCP corpus for linguistic and semantic analysis, and its application in the classroom. These stimulating papers were extremely well-received by the conference audience.

The sixth and final panel of the conference, on Digital Research Methods, was opened by Jake Halford who discussed his work on the emergence of “new philosophy” in the seventeenth century. Jake explored how EEBO-TCP has helped him in his research, graciously suggested that hearing the work of others examined during the conference had opened new avenues for his own work. Helen Sonner then gave a very engaging paper on the popular construction of meaning in early modern print, tracing the meaning and development of the word “plantation”. Matthew Steggle closed the session with a charming discussion of how EEBO-TCP has enabled his work looking for “lost plays”, concentrating, for this paper, on the work of Thomas Dekker.

The conference was brought to a close with a summary and plenary discussion, led by the wonderful Emma Smith. Emma skilfully pulled together the themes of the conference, highlighting the range of work being carried out using EEBO-TCP and demonstrating the value of the conference in bringing scholars together to share their work and ideas. Emma led a discussion which considered how scholars can fully embrace the possibilities offered by digital technology, and how this changing digital landscape is prompting researchers and content-creators alike to think about research methodologies. How are research methods changing? How can scholars explain and make explicit their methodologies? What role can content-creators play in this process? This discussion of the changing nature of the research process, and of research goals, led on to a discussion of the role of libraries and in particular of rare book libraries.

By considering the state of the TCP in 2012, this conference enabled a stimulating exploration of the changing research landscape for scholars in the humanities and for those who endeavour to support such research. The important questions raised are ripe for further discussion.

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