Happy New Year and Public Domain Day!

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I use these hours, when 2015 is already here, but still lingering on its way westward, as a festive opportunity to start a blog which I will dedicate to Early Modern paratexts. I imagine it as a series of notes from a Digital Humanities scholarly journey, in which I will tell the story of how I started to look for the Critick and his Envie, found them in the land of paratexts and stayed there to explore the surroundings; in which I will mainly discuss paratexts, more specifically frontal matter, and especially those of Early Modern English, but through them would also ruminate about the interface between what it is that we do in the humanities and between digital tools and methods; I will screw and play around with tools, always the absolute beginner that I am, and hope that other kids in the block will come play with me; And I promise that anything we come up with will be shared here.

But what is so special about these hours?
Soon, as 2015 will rise on the headquarters of TCP, the Text Creation Partnership, an enormous annotated corpus of the Early English Books Online will enter the public domain. EEBO-TCP opens endless opportunities not only for digital scholarship of English language and history, book history and Early Modern times; it is also a rare example of a corpus of humanities data (well, we’ll discuss this term too, but yes, data) that is both big(ish) AND very smart . Thus it is an excellent test case to explore the pros and cons of the practice of encoding texts in the humanities, in particular using XML mark-up according to the guidelines of the TEI, the Text Encoding Initiative.  It is a laboratory for watching the interplay between painstaking manual work and the fast and blissfully blind analysis by machine.

The entry to the public domain of the EEBO-TCP texts, already hashtaged as #EEBOliberationday, is wonderful news for digital humanists everywhere, but especially so if like me (marked with a green star in the map below) they reside outside the Anglophone realm. The map below shows the points of access to (any of the) TCP collections as they were just yesterday:

Map of TCP partners, according to http://www.textcreationpartnership.org/partners/ .

This map is not brought here to complain: without the partnership model that supported this enormous and important endeavor it would never have come through. And the map makes some sense too: one should not be surprised that the corpus of Early Modern English language is available only in Anglophone countries (well, and Helsinki), as this is where English language and history is studied most intensively. It is thus more important for  libraries and institutions in these countries to have this access and they would be those more motivated to contribute to it – and obtain access to it. It does, however, bring to mind a rather prickly issue with regard to scholarly resources in the digital age.

Allegedly, the world wide web offers redemption from parochialism. Internet transcends, in most cases, national borders, and facilitate an open network of knowledge. Granted, vast areas and populations are still isolated from this network of knowledge by what has become known as “the digital divide“, but on our side of the divide, in our web-wide world, we are all together in global unity. Or so we would have wished.

But beyond that great wall that keeps less developed countries, or those less socio-economically fortunate outside the digital world, there are, in fact, other digital divides, walls that separate and isolate, walls that meander throughout the fertile lands of cable or wireless abundance. One such wall is the one demarcating the academy through its privileges of access. Scholarly resources are purchased by libraries and not by individual scholars and students, thus creating equality of access, at least for the members of those institutes that can afford them.  There is, however, another side to this fortunate coin of institutional subscriptions: it creates a non-permeable membrane that keeps knowledge and the academy in, and ‘the public’ — out.  Other fortunate, well meant initiatives are national funding schemes such as JISC, that avail their resources throughout the country. This model too has the price, that knowledge will be fenced in national borders.

Similar predicaments ensues even when such academic, institutional or national borders are not set in advance, but by a simple logic of demand: those institutions, or countries, that are interested enough in a language, a culture, a discipline, will pay and grant their members access. It might even make sense to us because our interests in scholarly resources, and in language resources, often aligns well with our nationalities or institutional affiliations. And our interests will remain so, because resources of other nations, of other disciplines, languages and cultures are not present anywhere in our own warm and cosy pool of digital resources.

Parochialism is no more a problem of those who are locked outside, in the prairies of no-access, than it is of those locked inside. Languages, cultures, their resources and scholarship, are at risk of becoming parochial if they are not studied also from outside and from afar. But then comes open access that enables knowledge to escape this fate and transcend so many of these walls that we build. This is what is celebrated on the day of public domain, when cultural knowledge is allowed to flow and multiply.

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About Sinai

Post-doctoral fellow at the Polonsky academy, Jerusalem. Interested in text mining the language of dedications, prefaces, letters to the reader and other mainly - but not only - Early Modern kinds of paratext, and more generally, in what the digital humanities may hold for the study of paratext.
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