If you’ve ventured up to the fifth floor of Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, you’ve probably experienced the urge to turn the doorknob that leads into the glass room containing shelves of precious texts.

Though this area is off limits to everyone but staff, you will now be able to search for some these books through Penn’s new database.

Early Novels Database is a bibliographic database that consists of American and British fiction novels from the years 1660-1830, and it is revolutionizing humanities research.

While the collection of over 3,000 physical books will be searchable online, the texts will not be digitalized. Rather, END will focus on making metadata searchable.

“We view ourselves as a second generation metadata driven digital humanities project,” END faculty director Rachel Buurma said.

Lynne Farrington, the curator of Printed Books at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Van Pelt, defined metadata as “information about the work.” The “work” END focuses on is paratext, which includes titles, the claimed gender of the author, prefaces, title pages and circulating library lists of borrowers. The database draws this information from specific physical copies of these novels.

The END project began in 2003 under the leadership of English professor Michael Gamer and Farrington. After four years of work, the project failed to receive funding but was resurrected in 2009.

The novels are catalogued in such a way that researchers can search for information that is not provided by the main text, such as titles that include the word “adventure,” or female authors. This type of search allows scholars to draw connections that they may not have originally considered between books.

28429_0328_earlynoveldatabaseo.png

Buurma, who received a doctorate from the School of Arts and Sciences in 2005 and is now an assistant professor of English literature at Swarthmore, explained that metadata “offers so much precision.”

The focus of what she called the “first generation of digital humanities projects” — the creation of electronic versions of books — was on the text of the main body of work. “All the metadata got chipped away from these copies,” she said. “We have very few ways of looking for them [electronically].”

She conceded that the inclusion of metadata is not as “sexy” as the creation of electronic books, but she said the project’s emphasis is not on the digitalization of the novels but on the accessibility of the information their paratext provides.

The database draws from Penn’s, Bryn Mawr’s and the Library Company’s collections. Most of the books come from Van Pelt’s Singer-Mendenhall Collection.

The database is meant to be valuable to historians, as well as English scholars. This is because metadata on paratext allows the study of the history of individual copies. For example, some of the novels in the collection originally belonged to circulating libraries and have pages of the signatures of borrowers, which enable researchers to learn who read that particular copy of the novel.

28423_03252013_rarebooksvanpelt7f.jpg

Jon Shaw, the co-project manager and the assistant director for the Penn’s Libraries Research Annex, is overseeing the programming of the database. He described the database as a “supersized bibliographic record.”

The end users are not the only beneficiaries of the database.

Every summer since the project’s inception, 8 to ten undergraduates from Penn, Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr have worked on cataloguing the books for the online database — while learning about the novels themselves.

Shaw said the records are created and maintained by students. Buurma also stressed that the student learning process is immensely important to the project. “We want our students to take their time to learn,” she said.

Just how much time?

Farrington said in an email that “it will likely take another year or two before the website is made available to Penn students for their own research and even longer to complete the entry of data for Penn’s extensive collection of early novels.”

If END isn’t sufficient to fight the urge to open the glass door, John Pollack, the Rare Book and Manuscript public service specialist, said scholars — including students — can request the physical books to be brought from the locked storage room to the Reading Room, which is now open, on the sixth floor for them to examine.

The rest of the sixth floor opens to the public April 19.

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The Daily Pennsylvanian.