Archives offer adventures in time and cyberspace

Cengage's plans to digitise the 19th century could open up a whole new world, finds Matthew Reisz

April 26, 2012

Described by its provider as "the most ambitious scholarly digitisation and publication programme ever undertaken", Nineteenth Century Collections Online (NCCO) was launched last week.

Created by educational resources provider Cengage Learning, the project builds on the success of its ECCO (Eighteenth Century Collections Online) programme.

Abigail Williams, Lord White fellow and tutor in English at St Peter's College, Oxford, believes that ECCO has "transformed 18th-century studies across the world...It has been exciting and liberating in opening up the arcane, the ephemeral and the neglected, and allowing us to read way beyond the confines of the canon. The searchability of the text enables us to retrieve words and references from among millions of pages in a few seconds."

The only key downside of ECCO, adds Dr Williams, is its creation of "a two-tier system among universities", since "no serious 18th-century scholar would now think they could do research without it, yet not every institution can afford it".

Now that the first two parts of NCCO have been launched, Cengage has plans to release four separate archives per year over the next three years. Ray Abruzzi, the company's associate publisher for digital collections, accepts that even the eventual 36 to 40 million pages of material will be "at best provisionally comprehensive". However, he hopes they will fit together as "a mosaic of themes and regions, to tell the stories of empire, nationalism, growing literacy, science and the governed - to align closely with the way people are studying the 19th century".

A key goal is "to keep overlap with material available online to under 5 to 10 per cent. We are deliberately steering around what's already there, but then want to connect up with existing projects once ours is out. We hope NCCO will become a kind of hub." This will be achieved by basing most of the new virtual archives on existing hard copy collections, although others are being curated thematically.

The newly released archive on British Politics and Society, for example, brings together material such as the papers of leading statesmen from the British Library and Home Office: Registered Papers from The National Archives, as well as Transactions of the Manchester Statistical Society and the Tractarian pamphlets devoted to the reform of the Church of England held by Pusey House in Oxford. Around 1.3 million pages should provide ample material for those looking into topics such as popular radicalism, the suspension of habeas corpus or the Queen Caroline Affair.

The second archive assembles much hitherto unknown European literature from the period from 1790 to 1840.

Further pieces in the jigsaw will fall into place over the next two months with archives devoted to Asia and the West: Diplomatic and Cultural Exchange, and British Theatre, Music and Literature: High and Popular Culture.

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