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Response to Review of Nineteenth Century Collections Online

My colleagues and I at Gale want to thank Dr. McWilliam for his insightful review of Nineteenth Century Collections Online (NCCO). We are particularly appreciative of Dr. McWilliam’s overall approach – namely, to look at NCCO in the ‘larger context of the digital revolution’. It was in this same broad context that NCCO was first conceived, and in this way NCCO is substantially different from its predecessor and counterpart, Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO).

ECCO can be characterized as comprehensive because it includes almost every monograph published in the UK or its territories in the 18th century. It follows the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) for bibliographical guidance, and it includes over 180,000 titles constituting about 32 million pages of text.

In planning NCCO, Gale did consider following the Nineteenth Century Short Title Catalogue (NSTC) in an attempt to achieve a similarly comprehensive experience, but we came to realize that such an approach would cause NCCO to fall short of its objectives. This is not a criticism of the NSTC, which is a brilliant compilation and a signpost for much scholarly work. Rather, it is an admission that within the NCCO vision, the NSTC could only play a partial – though important – role in documenting the 19th century.

Why is this the case? Principally because NCCO is not limited to books (though books are an important part of the resource). Rather, NCCO places strong emphasis on manuscript materials; ephemera; newspapers; government documents; personal archives; illustrations; photographs; and other content types, too. Most crucially, NCCO’s vision is a global one, covering many regions of the world across the ‘long’ 19th century, not strictly the period 1801–1900.

So, how to manage a century – a very long century – of content? In order to represent the ‘raw materials’ that form the myriad stories of the period, Gale commissioned an International Advisory Board of scholars, researchers, librarians, and archivists. They advised us – quite rightly – that NCCO’s development should be guided by a long-term plan; that the publishing program should be divided into a number of units over a series of years; and that no matter how much we might desire to be 100 per cent comprehensive, such a goal would likely prove elusive. Yes, we could publish against established bibliographies – as we are doing – and yes, we could publish complete archives and named collections, but no, there’s no possible way NCCO will include ‘everything’ from its time period. There’s simply too much out there. In this sense, NCCO is ‘provisionally comprehensive’, as one of our Advisors sensibly described it to us.

The review asks a question about the completeness of each Archive. As of this writing (23 November 2012), I can confirm that all of the additional collections for British Politics and Society and all of those for British Theatre, Music, and Literature: High and Popular Culture, save one, will be completed and included in NCCO by the end of 2012. The remaining collection, Lord Chamberlain’s Plays (from the British Library), is still being conserved and repaired prior to the image-capture process. This is taking longer than Gale expected, but such is the reality when working with documents of this type. Gale is funding the conservation and repair of these documents – and those from many other collections – prior to creating scanned images, which will extend their life and actually leave them in better condition than when we first encountered them.

The review rightly raises the question of the future of the NCCO program. The first four archives are just the beginning of a program that will run for years. The scope is to publish between ten and 12 million pages of material each year. We are currently sourcing four additional archives for release by June 2013. Here is a preview:

Photography: The World through the Lens

Starting in 1839, man could for the first time ‘scientifically’ record the world in photographic images. These photographs were a visual record of their subjects, captured in a method widely considered to be authoritative and true. Photography: The World through the Lens assembles collections of photographs, photograph albums, photographically-illustrated books, and texts on the early history of photography from libraries and archives from across the globe. Some images are well-known while many have rarely been viewed. The 19th century was about family and society, invention and scientific discovery, exploration and colonization, urban versus rural life, work, leisure and travel – all this is captured in photographs. This archive is intended to serve multiple disciplines and support a range of research and study topics. The archive will contain almost two million pages of photographs and related materials from Britain, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Metadata will be attached to the images to ensure they find a solid place in a research workflow.

Science, Technology and Medicine, 1780–1925

The rise of secular culture, the transportation and information revolution, the competition for empire, modern warfare, and modern notions of the self and the body are all topics with links to ‘pure science.’ Science, Technology and Medicine, 1780–1925 helps researchers place science, along with medicine and technology, in the mainstream of historical study. The interdisciplinary collection consists primarily of two components:

  • Journals that reveal the connection between major episodes in the history of science, specifically in general science, medicine, biology, entomology, botany, chemistry, physics, mathematics, geology, paleontology, and technology.
  • Monographs in the hard and social sciences that touch upon the history of anthropology, archeology, ecology, public health, sanitation, geography, oceanography, astronomy, industrial and battlefield technology, and the philosophy of science.

The archive will comprise approximately five million pages of materials and will enable researchers to trace the emergence and dissemination of scientific ideas during the ‘long’ 19th century. The archive runs both wide and deep to navigate the borders between the hard and social sciences.

Europe and Africa: Commerce, Christianity, Civilization, and Conquest

The ‘Scramble for Africa’ began with the arrival of missionaries and explorers to the ‘Dark Continent’ in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Over the next 100 years, Africa would be ‘Christianized’ by European missionaries; ‘commercialized’ as an outlet for European-produced consumer goods and source for raw materials; and ‘civilized’ by the establishment of European political institutions and the arrival of European settlers. This collection will total almost one and a half million pages and provides an in-depth look into the motivations, activities and results of the European conquest of Africa in the 19th century.

Women: Transnational Networks

Using a wide array of primary source documents – serials, books, manuscripts, diaries, reports, and visuals – this archive focuses on issues at the intersection of gender and class from the late 18th century to the era of suffrage in the early 20th century, all through a transnational perspective. The collection contains deep information on European and North American movements, but also expands its scope to include collections from other regions.

Researchers and scholars will find almost three million pages of content related to:

  • social reform movements and groups
  • high and ‘low’ culture
  • literature and the arts
  • immigration
  • daily life
  • religion

and many other subjects.

Returning to Dr. McWilliam’s observation about the focus for 2012; yes, we did decide to stay fairly within the Western world and publish materials that relate in large measure to 19th-century Britain. We decided to launch NCCO this way because Gale has, through ECCO and other resources like Nineteenth Century British Library Newspapers and State Papers Online, a large ‘footprint’ in this area, and this is a strength on which we wished to continue to build and extend.

This is a good place to add a note about the chronological scope of NCCO. Dr. McWilliam is right to note that the scope of the first four archives goes well beyond the Victorian era. This is a deliberate decision on Gale’s part and is shaped by several factors.

First, as NCCO is not based on the NSTC, we are not bound to a strict chronology as with ECCO. Scholars have argued in the past that the ‘cut-off’ for ECCO sometimes falls short of their research interests, which may extend back into the 17th century and forward into the nineteenth century. On the counsel of our advisors, Gale sought to remedy this with a liberal interpretation of what ‘the nineteenth century’ actually means. The ‘long nineteenth’ quickly became the ‘very long nineteenth.’

Second, Gale works very closely with curators and archivists. Our colleagues in this world firmly hold to the notion that each particular ‘collection’ is a collection for a good reason, and that to re-define (or stated more directly, ‘chop up’) a collection arbitrarily based on a chronology that, in essence, exists outside of that collection, would be a disservice to the collection, to the libraries that hold them, and to the scholars that use them. The first four archives of the NCCO program, while arranged into four distinct modules, are comprised of almost 80 separate collections. Most are limited to the 19th century itself; some are not. That said, the bulk of the NCCO content does indeed fall into the 19th century, making the ‘NCCO’ designation an accurate one.

Let me close with a forecast (and with thanks, again, to Dr. McWilliam). Beginning in mid-2013, Gale will gradually move its entire Gale Digital Collections program into a new Integrated Research Environment purposely built for scholarly research in the humanities. All of the tools and services available in NCCO will be extended to nearly all of the archives already published by Gale – including ECCO, Sabin Americana, Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, Making of the Modern World, and many more. With this, I foresee a world where product-packaging and time-frames will matter less, and content selection and value will matter more. Thus the scope of ‘NCCO’ as we understand it today will instantly broaden to include something much, much larger. Beowulf will be united with the The Economist. Imagine the possibilities…