Ye olde desktop project

October 22, 2004

About 125,000 ancient books in English have been put online. Olga Wojtas surveys an interactive archive that intends to open a new chapter in scholarship

Suffering from toothache? Eyes a little bloodshot? Wish your hair wasn’t thinning? You can now seek advice at your desktop from Nicholas Culpepper’s 1680 tome on herbal medicine that aimed to “teach every man and woman to be their own doctor”.

The book is one of about 125,000 available to every UK university through Early English Books Online, a revolutionary project digitising every book published in English before 1700. A licensing deal struck by the Joint Information Systems Committee with the e-publisher Pro-Quest means that academics and students have full access to a 21st-century transcription as well as the original text, including illustrations, which can be enlarged on screen. All institutions have to pay is a hosting charge of between £78 and £2,200, depending on student numbers.

Lorraine Estelle, Jisc’s collections team manager, says: “In the case of some of these books, there may be only one copy in the world, which is going to be in the Bodleian [Library at Oxford University] or the British Library [in central London], kept under special conditions where you can’t put your grubby paws on them. This project puts students and researchers in touch with primary scholarly material in a way you could never do in the real world.”

In a further development, Jisc has contributed £750,000 to the Text Creation Partnership (TCP) led by the University of Michigan and Oxford to make 20 per cent of the texts fully searchable. This is a technically complex task, since, far from copy typing, the researchers must interpret inaccurate typography, variable punctuation and inconsistent spelling. Even the title page of Culpepper’s book spells his name two ways.

Estelle says that because the books are not only literature, but also include subjects such as science, philosophy and theology, they will open up new areas for teaching and research in a range of disciplines. This will be even more powerful once the texts became searchable. “You could take a phrase that Shakespeare used, for example in a prologue, and find every other playwright who used that phrase, and every playwright who used it in a prologue, and see how it developed and moved on,” she explains.

“In a newer discipline such as women’s studies you could look at the way the identity of women was portrayed and changed over time.”

The texts are not “read only”, Estelle stresses, but can be cut and pasted by academics and students into teaching packs, PowerPoint presentations and project work as long as they are properly attributed.

UK academics will have the chance to suggest which works should be included among the searchable texts at the TCP’s launch at the British Library on October 25. For details: visit

Early English Books Online: http:///

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