The Life and Opinions of Twitter Bots: 18th Century Prefatory Paratexts, the Capacities of Social Media, and Fact Checking

When I first started cataloging early novels, having no experience with 18th century materials and little historical knowledge of the 1780s social world of authors and readerships, I was struck by many of the differences between those books and their contemporary equivalents.

Looking at a random book in my backpack I had brought to read on my train commute to work – The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – (which, admittedly, I still haven’t read), the paratextual data was completely different: Adventures opens with a page of praise for the novel from different publications (The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, &c.), and then includes a page devoted to a list of Chabon’s other works, an incredibly in-depth copyright page, an author’s note in the back in which Chabon thanks a large number of people by first and last name and lists a large number of books the author found helpful during his writing process, and finally an About the Author blurb. Were I interested in learning more, I could simply Google search any number of things, buy all of Chabon’s other works on Amazon (or else read them online), read Chabon’s tweets (or others’ tweets about him), click through related Wikipedia pages, watch interviews with him on YouTube, read full book reviews, so on and so forth. The data is, in many ways, freely accessible and richly linked.

For 18th century novels, on the other hand, the paratextual data is plentiful and deep, but profoundly different. Though they frequently include pages and pages of prefatory material, many works, for example, are anonymous, list a publisher only by their last name, or include a an introduction that refers to some nameless, and therefore largely unresearchable, Duchess, scholar, friend. In many cases, my carefully curated Google searches appear to return nothing related to the book I hold in my hands.

With this in mind, for my personal project I planned to analogize 18th century paratexts to modern day authorial social media presence. In the absence of the Internet, television, and radio, these paratexts (Prefaces, To the Readers, Introductions, Advertisements, Notes) are, in many cases, the sole source of immediately accessible information on the author and the book’s origin (both to an 18th century reader and to myself). Like social media presences, paratexts are means by which authors divulge information about themselves and their work, engaging with their readers as a fleshy human being (if one physical distant and on-the-page), as opposed to a disembodied fictional narrator.

To represent this comparison, I created a Twitter bot that tweets fragments of 18th century prefatory paratexts. Twitter is an online social media platform founded in 2006 that allows its users to share and read 140-character messages (“tweets”). Unlike social networking websites like Facebook, users do not have to mutually “friend” each other–one person can “follow” another person, and therefore see their tweets on their feed, without the other person following them back. This sort of platform allows for a unique variety of popular userships: “regular” individuals can have personal Twitter accounts, but so can, say, celebrities and bots. Most celebrities (musicians, actors, authors…) have a Twitter account where they can tweet about their daily life, participate in public conversations with other users, or market themselves by sharing information about upcoming appearances, tours, and work. Their fans can follow these accounts and keep up with their favorite celebrities, resulting in a largely unidirectional sort of conversation: celebrities tweet, their fans read, “like”, and “share” those tweets, without, in many cases, the celebrity ever doing the same in return. This is much like the case of readers and authors, both modern day and 18th century – readers learn about authors, not by having independent relationships with authors, but by consuming published material by or about the author, be that tweets or prefaces.

Twitter bots are accounts that, while programmed by human individuals, tweet on their own accord, drawing from databases, corpuses, or whatever else, at the hand of the bot’s programmer. Like celebrity accounts, much of their output is unidirectional: they amass many followers and readers without necessarily following anyone, using hashtags, retweeting, direct messaging, or what have you.  Twitter, though it attempts to ban fake or spam accounts that detract from other users’ experience, does not suspend bot accounts for simply being bots. Because the kind of content bots can produce is so diverse, ranging from humorous to political to mundane, they can accrue large, voluntary readerships and contribute to the “social” world of Twitter. Notorious Twitter bots include @everyword, which began in 2007 to tweet every word in the English language one at a time; @congress-edits, which tweets every time a Wikipedia article is edited from an IP address associated with congress; and @thinkpiecebot, which generates and tweets fake thinkpiece article headlines.

To build my bot, I used Zach Whalen’s Google spreadsheets-based program and instructions. I aggregated plaintext versions of paratexts from Project Gutenberg as well as from END researcher Kat Poje’s Preface Project. I then divided this corpus into shorter fragments by hand, formatted the fragments such that the file was CSV readable, and fed the file to my bot in order that it would tweet a random fragment (so long as it was 140 characters or less) every 2 hours.


After creating this bot, however, I found that it did not really demonstrate what I had intended it to compare (authorial self-representation). My bots’ tweets hardly approximated anything that a contemporary author might tweet, in style or content. While this doesn’t exclude both tweets and paratexts from being mediums of self-representation, creating a Twitter bot of 18th century paratexts doesn’t necessarily make this clear: tweets from contemporary human authors are more various and intentional in that they were formulated to be tweeted. They are the right character length; they make sense individually; they include links, videos, and .gifs. My bot’s fragments are often nonsensical, silly, incomplete–unlike complete Prefaces and unlike a human’s tweets, but very similar to the kind of content produced by Twitter’s most popular bots. My bot’s tweets feel very obviously bot generated, even though all of its content was, at one point, written by a human being. My bot’s tweets are fragments of material that originally preceded a novel’s text, and without that context, most of the tweets make little sense. This “failure,” however, transformed my project into an exercise in the capabilities of Twitter bots, and the complex world of fact and fictionality.

Many of the 18th century novels we cataloged this summer claim to be based on true stories. Occasionally, they are, but often they are fabricated, or else so closely mimic what might be a truth that neither an 18th century reader nor a modern one can parse fact from fiction. Many of my bot’s tweets contain bits and pieces of truth claims. Interestingly, more than my bot replicates the world of authorial self-representation, I think my bot operates as a unique commentary on the ambiguity of fiction and on 18th century knowledge production. Though my bot’s corpus draws on popular 18th century books whose plaintext versions can be easily accessed online, my bot’s corpus draws equally on prefaces transcribed from Kat Poje’s Preface Project, which focuses on more obscure, noncanonical books and which, as of right now, only provides access to pictures (and not a searchable text) of these materials. While I intend to eventually organize, upload, and make accessible the corpus I used, at the present moment my bot’s tweets are some of the only, if not the singular, online text transcriptions of these prefaces. Were someone interested in figuring out which book a particular tweet was originally sourced from, a Google search of the text might bring no results. While I assure that these tweets are from 18th century prefaces, what good is my assurance? How different is my assurance from an 18th century author’s prefatory truth claim? Though my bot makes use of the digital, its data is not linked in any way. The fragmented, decontextualized medium of a Twitter feed allows these texts to remain obscure, to reiterate their ambiguous truthfulness in the digital age in a way that, say, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon could never have done.


Epigraphs and Shakespeare in the eighteenth century

This year, I centred my personal project on Shakespeare, my primary academic interest. Having recently completed a thesis on the legendary playwright, I had to ask this question: why were there so many Shakespearean epigraphs present in the eighteenth century? What is the significance of Shakespeare in this period? And is there a link between the function of the epigraph and the text itself.

For this, we should first go back to what an epigraph is, and why it is important to the eighteenth century. Epigraphs are, in essence, the first thing a reader encounters between the title of the book, and the main body of the novel– sort of an “amuse bouche” of what is to come next. Something that is important to note here is that the epigraph is supposed to set the tone for reading, and what is to come ahead, and oftentimes, a famous quote from an Ancient Greek philosopher may be chosen to give the novel at hand more credence. In this, it can be argued that sometimes the epigraph is merely to be taken at face-value, in how it contributes to the overall construction of the novel. After all, if something is written in ancient Greek, it is unlikely that the majority of the growing population of readers in the eighteenth century would be able to read it.

What is also important to note is that, not only is the novel on the rise, but Shakespeare himself is gaining fast popularity amongst his eighteenth-century audience. Increasingly, Shakespeare was embedded in the literary canon, which gives rise to the question of whether the novel fed into the rise of Shakespeare, or vice versa.

From here, I used the END metadata to create .csv files to run through OpenRefine, a software designed to tabulate and parse through data fields. Using this tool, I was able to extract the epigraph information in the 591 fields of each record. Here, I started noticing that much of the data needed cleaning, and that data itself was not only subjective, but fallible.

After correcting the spelling mistakes, and double checking blank fields, I was able to find some interesting results. As it turns out, although Shakespeare was quoted the most, 40% of the time he was quoted, he was not attributed as the source of the quote– a statistic that is almost equal to the 42% probability that Shakespeare was attributed as “Shakespeare”. It was also not uncommon to find that the quote was just attributed to “Shakes.” or “Shakespear.” So what does this mean in terms of the authority of Shakespeare in the eighteenth century?

Even so, most of the records that did not attribute Shakespeare did reference the play that the quote was taken from, which engages with the idea that Shakespeare is commonplace knowledge at this time. But out of the 42 individual records, 13 records possessed neither attributions to Shakespeare or his plays. In these cases, then, I concluded that the text of the epigraph itself had to be significant in some way to the novel itself. Playing with a plain text version of “The recess” and mapping it against its epigraph from Shakespeare’s As You Like It using Voyant Tools, I was able to find one specific portion of the text that contained all the words relating to the terms used in the epigraph– a sort of primordial was of topic modelling, but an interesting result all the same.

What I can conclude from this is that epigraphs are not merely ornaments, but deliberate– and something I wasn’t really about to find the answer to was who was choosing the epigraphs in each novel in the first place.

Imagined Distance: Visualizing Place and Space in Faux Epistolary Travel Novels

I. Inspiration

My interest in this project began with a general curiosity about the relationship between distance and epistolarity. While cataloging, I had the opportunity to read a wide variety of epistolary novels, including those in which the characters were writing across divides of cultural and physical geography, age, gender, and class background. Epistolary novels have a complicated relationship with distance; they at once rail against distance, seeking to shrink or even ignore it, and at the same time exist as the necessary gifts of distance. Letter exchange in epistolary novels would not exist without distance, and is indebted to its presence as an omnipresent conflict and source of motion.

II. Research motives and questions

The central research of this project focuses on how epistolary novels ignore, honor, or attempt to collapse distance. I define this distance as geographical, emotional, or even spiritual. I seek to contrast and quantitate, when or if possible, the various types of distances in a novel as the author conceived of them with the distances as I could actually map through various digital tools that use a standard Mercator projection. I use a corpus of literature that eventually organized itself around a particular subtype of my original genre, one both oddly specific and widely published in the 18th century. Faux epistolary travel fiction emerged in the 18th century as a way for Europeans to read about the adventures of primarily non white travelers–except those travelers were actually white British writers impersonating people of color. What I find so interesting, even alarming, about the faux travel fiction trend in particular is that it creates and then purports to collapse a fictional distance from the dominant culture that the writer does not actually have to negotiate in the first place. For example, in Letters from a Moor at London to his friend at Tunis, the “Moor”, actually an English author, supposedly travels a great distance to see the wonders of London. He finds it so amenable even to his foreign tastes that the distance magically disappears and he fits right in, celebrating his surroundings instead of dealing with the cultural distance and change  his author never actually knew. There is, notably, no paratext, no explanation, and perhaps more tellingly, no background provided in the text on who this person is–he is just a Moor through whom the British can see their own nation. As a traveller he is far from conquistador-esque, simply allowing observations to flow through him.

III. Process and method

I used the intentionally blunt tool of mapping out the locations I note in the novels, and then noticing which details fall off the page. I was particularly interested in any potential correlations between those distances that defy my attempts at modelling, and those I’d noticed in my initial close reading to be somehow viscerally off; in Letters from a Moor, the character says he’s sitting 2 miles away in Tunis, but I as the reader am pretty sure he’s got a bit more privilege lifting him farther away than that. There is always a certain degree of falsehood or maybe wishful thinking inherent in letter writing; it is easier to lie when far away about what the environment looks like (or maybe who one actually is, too.) Rather than ignoring discord, I preferred to make this problem of distortion and incompleteness the center of this project.

Before I began mapping, I did a series of close readings, primarily focusing on the paratexts each novel contained, if any. The details I gleaned from these readings served as the basis for my examination of which details the maps did evade. Examining paratexts provided me with the opportunity to determine to what extent the authors and publishers of epistolary novels acknowledged the fictive nature of their publications. The answer to this question could be visualized as a broad spectrum of fictionality. The Moor, as I’ve noted, includes no paratext. I found quite a different approach in Chinese letters. Being a philosophical, historical, and critical correspondence between a Chinese traveller at Paris, and his countrymen in China, Muscovy, Persia and Japan. This novel included a lengthy introduction that almost served as an apology and justification for the publisher’s decision to engineer a semblance of a Chinese traveler’s experience. As written in the introduction: “If it be not thought extraordinary that in certain Pieces even the Dead are sometimes introduced as Speakers, can there be any harm in supposing certain Chinese, in fictitious letters, to be perhaps a little more learned than they are in Reality?”(Argens, xv).  I found this a humorous, if still alarming, echo of another book in my corpus, Friendship in death: in twenty letters from the dead to the living: To which are added, Letters moral and entertaining, in prose and verse: in three parts. I included this latter work mostly as a satirical extension ad absurdum of my original corpus, as the distance the epistolary novel attempts to bridge is no less than that between this world and the next.

After completing close readings, I used the Stanford Name Entity Recognizer tool to identify locations in the novels I’d selected. I then edited the lists it created, and transferred them into spreadsheets. From these spreadsheets, I created in Google My Maps a map of each of the novels, with their geographical references displayed on a standard Mercator projection map, and used Google Fusion Tables as a further tool for exploration. I include below in the next section an image of the result for Chinese Letters. Magenta circles indicate places to and from which letters were supposedly sent, while yellow lines indicate the paths the letters traveled. Blue stars mark places referenced within the letters sent.

IV. Results

From these first maps, I gleaned several important results. First, the NER and Google My Maps alike struggled to correctly display certain place names. I found this to be for two main reasons. First, the place names might have been entirely mythical. Second, some of the place names are exotified or anglicised beyond recognition by modern mapping and location software. Both of these challenges indicate that the place names referenced in faux epistolary travel novels exist along a spectrum of fictionality, some very real and some quite unreal, and that that spectrum of fictionality is mediated by the increasing exotification and misnaming of locations  in the global south and in Asia, particularly outside the Middle East.

Highlights Chinese Letters

I also noticed that the clusters of stars, as place names referenced in the novels,  became much more concentrated in Western Europe and to a lesser extent in the Middle East, roughly in the area surrounding the birthplaces of the major Abrahamic religions. Initially, I hypothesized that the saturation of stars around these places simply indicated that more individual places in those areas were mentioned many times, and this would have seemingly lined up with the previous finding that far off places were lesser known and therefore more sparsely and incorrectly mentioned. However, upon additional inspection of the data, I realized that the places in which the stars were tightly packed were mentioned with more specificity, as well as higher frequency for each individual descriptive term. For example, references to anywhere in the African continent were limited to “Ethiopia”, “Africa”, and the “Cape of Good Hope”, all very general words. By contrast, within Britain alone “Devon”, “Devonshire”, “Canton”, “London”, as well as the more general “England” were all mentioned, resulting in greater specificity, and “England” was also mentioned many times, indicating high frequency. The actual geographical distance as described on a map between the writer and his subject, rather than that indicated in the novel, was much lower in England as indicated by the degree of specificity, frequency, and realness (lack of fictionality) in the places present in my data.

To better visualize saturation and specificity, I created through Google Fusion tables the heat map below. Warm colors indicate a saturated area of blue stars, with the red areas dominating in both specificity and frequency.

Heatmap Chinese Letters

V. Further reflections

The use of maps and mapping software to explore this project, I found, was both fittingly imprecise and revealing both practically and  metaphorically. I found throughout these novels that the letter writer, like the map maker, delineates and deletes the world presented to the reader.  The correspondence between the two cultures, exchanged cordially through the written word, would seem to create a balanced view of the world. At the same time, in order to project life onto the page in the form of a letter, the letter writer must flatten it in some way, just as the reality of the earth’s shape must be flattened into a projection of a map.

In “The Rise of Fictionality”, Gallagher uses the term “honest fiction.” I suspect that the truth claims of epistolary novels that do not include apologetic paratext are guilty of certain forms of deception that might challenge their place as “honest fiction” (338). First, as explored in my existing project, the letter obviously presents the opportunity to distort a realistic relation of one character’s surroundings to another character within the novel. Were I to explore this project further, I would like to challenge the idea of the epistolary novel as a literary work of print that draws a good deal of its appeal and impact from its resemblance, often physical and tangible in the case of simulated manuscript, stamps, or postage, to the everyday, nonfictional works of print that are letters, letters never actually exchanged during the world travels of a fictional tourist.


Gallagher, Catherine. “The Rise of Fictionality.” Moretti, Franco. The Novel, vol. I, Princeton University Press. 2006.

Argens, marquis d’. Chinese letters. Being a philosophical, historical, and critical correspondence between a Chinese traveller at Paris, and his countrymen in China, Muscovy, Persia and Japan. London, printed for D. Browne… and R. Hett… 1741.

Letters from a Moor at London to his friend at Tunis. Containing an account of his journey through England, with observations on the laws, customs, religion, and manner of the English nation. London, printed for J. Batley [and others]. 1736.

Early Novels Genius: Poetry as Sampling in 18th and 19th Century Novels


Many 18th and 19th century novels contain excerpts of non-prose forms, framed by the novel text but pulled from other sources. One form frequently excerpted within these novels is poetry. In her book Lyric Generations: Poetry and the Novel in the Long Eighteenth Century, G. Gabrielle Starr discusses poetry fragmentation in the novel genre and its cultural impact on the attitudes of 18th century readers towards fragmentation in general. Starr states that “Eighteenth-century readers and writers were becoming accustomed to encountering lyric in nonlyric forms and with a relaxation of formal regularity” as “Parts and pieces…took on new importance” in the realm of the novel.

My project explores this excerpting of poetry in early novels, and compares it to the contemporary use of sampling in popular music. I am interested in the ways in which the early novel – a genre often conceptualized as constituting a complete work with an authoritative narrator and a clear recounting of events – is complicated by its use of poetry fragments: small insertions of text that are incomplete, lacking context, and up for public interpretation. I am interested in displaying this seeming contradiction through likening it to the contemporary complexity of sampling.


Sampling is a process that challenges the notion that songs are branded and authoritatively owned by their artists, through opening up possibilities for shared ownership, shared knowledge, multilayered meaning, and widespread interpretive disagreement. In particular, the website Genius, which displays accurate song lyrics while allowing for public annotation, exemplifies the crowdsourcing component of sampling culture. Genius demonstrates how a space where the public may offer its perspectives on particular songs is therefore a space for the constant reinterpretation of song meanings and song history. It is a space that envisions songs as inherently fragmentary, detached from a central authority figure and open for a variety of understandings.


For my project, I created Genius pages for several passages within 18th and 19th century novels that include poetry fragments. I had originally planned to use Genius Web Annotator, a WordPress plugin, to convert passages of novel text into webpages open for public annotation, but ran into technical difficulties with that method, so moved on to directly inputting passages of text into the Genius website by using the “Add Song” option and choosing the category “Lit.”

I used two methods to search for novels that contained poetry fragments and would therefore be useful for my project. While one method included the use of digital tools, the other was more in the vein of traditional humanities research methods, and drawing on both of these types of research processes was useful for both shaping my project and developing my understanding of digital humanities as an interdisciplinary field.

My first method consisted of using END’s previously cataloged metadata from 18th century novels to find a list of novels that could potentially contain passages useful for this project. Using the Excel spreadsheet containing END’s metadata, I narrowed down my options by searching through the 592$c field (the field that includes information about non-prose forms within novels) to find texts that include “Poems” or “Verse.”

My second method consisted of simply coming across poetry fragments in novels as I cataloged them, and recording the Bib ID’s of those novels so that I could use them for my project. This second method allowed me to expand beyond mostly European, 18th century novels (a category which comprises the bulk of END’s metadata thus far) and explore poetry fragmentation in 19th century American novels as well. It also offered me the opportunity to get to know and physically touch these books before recognizing that they could be useful to my project and incorporating them into my research. This up-close interaction with the books, and my resulting decision to use them for my project, seems almost to be the reverse of my first, data-centered method, in which my initial step was searching for books that fit the credentials of my project, and getting to see and touch them only afterward.

In formatting my Genius pages, I included the poetry fragments as the central element, and framed them with their surrounding texts, to emphasize both their placement in a particular textual context and their ability to be removed from that context. I listed the text author as the “artist,” the publisher as the “producer,” and the poem author as “featured,” demonstrating how, even in the initial creation of a work, its ownership is shared and contestable. For “release date,” I included the year of publication of the specific book I was using, which often differs from the original release date of the first edition or copy of the text. This choice is meant to call into question the idea that texts have one singular moment of origin.

I experimented with annotating the texts – a task that anyone who views these pages could participate in if they wanted – and also filling in descriptions for the texts, which I am authorized to do as the pages’ creator. The distinction between annotation, a democratic task open to the public, and description-writing, which only the creator of the text is allowed to do, demonstrates an inherent tension in the Genius format between public interpretation and central authority. The fact that all descriptions for Genius entries must be “reviewed” by a Genius moderator adds another layer of authority, calling into question who has control over the knowledge produced on this crowdsourcing website.


In the future, this project could be expanded upon through a widening of the participant base and a deepening of the project’s engagement with the history of textual and musical fragmentation. While I am, so far, the only person to annotate the Genius pages I created, widespread annotation of these pages would produce debate, interpretive disagreement, and enhanced knowledge about the texts. Widespread participation would allow the project to explore how large groups of people crowdsource to gain information about fragmentary material.

Lastly, continued research on both poetry culture in the 18th and 19th century and sampling culture in the 21st century could take this project further by uncovering distinctions and similarities between these two fragmentary forms, and investigating how their comparison could be useful in understanding how readers or listeners relate to fragmentation. Research on these topics this summer was limited by time constraints, and it remains an aspect of my project that I would like to pursue further.

Some questions my project has attempted to probe (and that it still grapples with) are:

How does fragmentation of a poetic text decontextualize it? Does its de-contextualization open up possibilities for its public (re)interpretation?

How did poetry, and its excerption, function distinctly as a component of 18th century culture? How does sampling culture function and impact our contemporary world? To what degree can we draw similarities between these two art forms and the ways in which they reflect and shape the worldview of their consumers?

Does a Genius-style webpage embody an ethic of open access and open interpretation of art and literature? Or is there actually still a central authority structure on this type of webpage that decides whether subjective textual interpretations are accurate or inaccurate?


Starr, G. Gabrielle. (2004). Lyric Generations: Poetry and the Novel in the Long Eighteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

The mutual constitution of femininity and privacy in 18th ce epistolary novels

Part I: Reading Secondary Sources in Order to Trace The Public/Private Binary

The gender binary is not only a system of ordering bodies and families, but also of ordering ideas, art, and literature. Abstract concepts are associated with supposedly physically manifested genders in the collective consciousness of the West – vanity with womanhood, bravery with men, etc. Such simplistic assignments of values, ideas, and emotions to gender are easily recognizable as stereotypes. The rather subtler, but no less insidious, association of women with privacy fascinates me, given my own practice of keeping a diary. The history of the diary form as intimately linked with masculinized colonialism throughout the seventeenth century, but then, starting in the eighteenth and nineteenth, feminized domesticity and interiority, intrigues me – how did the shift occur?

My interest in the diary novel has found expression in an investigation of epistolary novels. The two forms are closely linked: Martens describes the evolution of the form of the diary novel when she writes that, in eighteenth century England, “These works [books of letters], and their fictional counterparts, are called ‘journals’ instead of merely ‘letters’ because, in accordance with the eighteenth-century meaning of the word ‘journal,’ their authors wrote with the intention of conveying a circumstantial record of the events of each day” (76). The diary novel as we know it – usually written by a woman, usually a white woman, and ranging in fictionality from edited journals not originally intended for publication to popular novels – actually explores some of the same themes as eighteenth century epistolary novels, such as interiority, privacy, female friendship, objectification, and the male gaze. The insistently gendered and feminocentric nature of both these genres begs the question: what about epistolarity is feminine, or what is feminine about epistolarity?

It seems that the values and themes that shape the epistolary novel as a feminine form also shape the diary novel as a feminine form – interiority, exploration of close relationships, the woman as one who is observed and on display, but not quite a public figure. As E.H. Cook writes, “While keeping its actual function as an agent of the public exchange of knowledge, [the letter] took on the general connotation it still holds for us today, intimately identified with the body, especially a female body, and the somatic terrain of the emotions, as well as with the thematic material of love, marriage, and the family” (6). This conflation of embodied gender and disembodied “thematic material” is less straightforward than it appears; instead of asking, are letters gendered (yes, of course) I’m trying to ask, why? How so? What about these characteristics of letters are feminine? Closely reading E.H. Cook shows that it is not despite, but because of, the functionality of letters as carriers of public discourse as well as communications about familial and feminine affairs that created the identification of epistolary novels with female bodies.

Much of the closeness of the relationship between femininity and epistolarity has to do with the concurrent rise of capitalism and the nuclear family. Capitalism’s deployment and reliance upon the nuclear family created, but also complicated, a private/public divide. For it is the nuclear family, according to Habermas, that nurtured the modern notion of individual subjectivity, but it is only capable of full expression when oriented towards the public, or at least, another person. He writes, “Subjectivity, as the innermost core of the private, was always already oriented to an audience …The diary became a letter addressed to the sender, and the first-person narrative became a conversation with one’s self addressed to another person. These were experiments with the subjectivity discovered in the close relationships of the conjugal family” (49). Here, we can understand private and public spaces not as dichotomous but instead as mutually constitutive. Habermas, in describing the evolution and growth of a public sphere, demonstrates the ways in which such separations actually bely understandings of private and public as totally separable and discrete.

The prevalence of women writers in the latter half of the eighteenth century speaks to the difficulty of discretely separating public and private roles. Jane Spencer, in her article “Women Writers and the Eighteenth Century Novel,” asserts that the gendered nature of romantic fiction, which is usually posited as a direct predecessor to the novel, reflects both womens’ desire for a public voice as well as misogyny that confines that voice. “That women’s concerns and desires are important, and that a woman’s story can be the center of a narrative, are the claims that make eighteenth-century women’s fictions ‘romantic’ …[and] still devalued in comparison to other genre fiction” (214). Indeed, the very nature of the themes represented in womens fiction contributed to a complexity and blurriness of privacy, instead of its neat delineation; “The new evaluation of privacy and domesticity encouraged by sentimental ideology contributed to the ambiguity of public/private distinctions” (Spencer, 217). Spencer’s argument that women positioned themselves as moral leaders demonstrates both the strength of ideology that assigns values to women associated with privacy – i.e. familial virtue, virginity, etc. – and the youth of this same ideology in the eighteenth century. The assignment of privacy to women could only happen once the private and public spheres were delineated due to the rise of capitalism, and the ties between the nuclear family and its women were firmly established. By reading secondary sources, we can come to an understanding of the ways in which epistolary novels both reflected and created a discourse of gendered privacy.

Of course, the very act of reading an epistolary novel means that it is public, in a fashion. The line between participation and voyeurism is very thin, and made to be teetered on; “Despite Richardson’s claims to the contrary, Pamela was a sexy book; Richardson’s own affection for his creation turned the scenes of her virtue in distress into an opportunity for voyeurism” (McGirr, 88). I say this not to condemn the notion of voyeurism but to highlight the instability of a gendered privacy, which, in representation, becomes inherently un-private. “Letters routinely transgress the boundary of inside and outside, public and private, within the narrative itself; and at a meta-narrative level, the published letter (the novels being entirely constructed of letters) is the private made public, closeted ruminations revealed to the gaze of a reading public” (Clery, 138). A feminine privacy enacted in epistolary novels is paradoxical; for a novel to contain private correspondence is impossible, if private correspondence is defined by how few people it reaches. Instead, privacy becomes abstract and can only be grasped through its feminine nature. Understanding the necessity of femininity in the construction of privacy illuminates the ways in the capitalist nuclear family created something supposedly ahistorical; it is not such a stretch to trace the evolution of privacy in the West from epistolary novels to Griswold vs. Connecticut. In understanding not only that it is gendered, but that privacy actually needs femininity to operate as a concept, we can historicize that which has been decontextualized and posited as natural, i.e. gender.

Part II: Topic Modeling

I started my project hoping to find clear patterns linking words associated with privacy – closet, domestic, interior – next to words associated with femininity – miss, fair, etc. While my secondary sources seem to support such connections, the nature of topic modeling makes it less suited for testing hypotheses and more suited for exploring a large corpus of texts. In his article “Probabilistic Topic Models” in the April 2012 issue of Communications of the ACM Princeton professor of Computer Science David Blei writes, “Topic models are algorithms for discovering the main themes that pervade a large and otherwise unstructured collection of documents. Topic models can organize the collection according to the discovered themes” (77). The idea that one can discover something as nebulous as a “theme” through computerized number-crunching is intriguing, and, arguably, a key part of digital humanities scholarship. In my case, I didn’t necessarily feel the need to “discover” a theme in a large corpus of texts, for my collection of documents was actually small and structured.

All the texts I chose are all epistolary novels, because of my interest in privacy and letter-writing. They are all be women authors, except for Pamela: for the many women authors writing in the long eighteenth century, epistolary novels were a very popular form. It’s hard to say if most women authors wrote epistolary novels or if most epistolary novels were by women, but there is a strong connection between female authorship and epistolary novels that adds another, intriguing dimension to representations in those novels of femininity and epistolarity. Here is where topic modeling is useful: instead of hypothesizing that women authors will automatically write about femininity or use words recognizably associated with the concept, and looking for a yes or a no, we have a chance to ask an open-ended question exploring the “main themes” and then examining our results.

The books I used were:

Brooke, Frances. The History of Lady Julia Mandeville. London: R. and J. Dodsley, 1763. Plain

text source: Literature Online.

Brooke, Frances. Emily Montague. London: J. Dodsley, 1769. Plain text source: Literature


Burney, Fanny. Evelina. London: T. Lowndes, 1778. Plain text source: Project Gutenberg

Fenwick, Eliza. Secresy. London, 1795. Plain text source: Literature Online.

Fielding, Sarah. The Countess of Dellwyn. A. Millar: London, 1759. Plain text source: Literature


Foster, Hannah Webster. The Coquette. Samuel Etheridge: Boston, 1795. Plain text source:

Project Gutenberg.

Gunning, Susannah. Barford Abbey. T. Payne: London, 1768. Plain text source: Project


Keir, Elizabeth. The History of Miss Greville. Edinburgh: E. Balfour & W. Creech, 1787. Plain

text source: The Internet Archive.

Richardson, Samuel. Clarissa. Samuel Richardson: London, 1751. Plain text source: Project


Scott, Sarah. Millenium Hall. London: J. Newbery, 1765. Plain text source: Literature Online.

Sheridan, Frances Chamberlaine. The Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph. London: J. Dodsley, etc.

  1. Plain text source: Literature Online.

I chose these books because I could find their full texts online, a necessity for topic modeling. They range in publication date from 1751 to 1795, a range of dates small enough for some cohesion but long enough for a look at the latter half of the eighteenth century, the time that saw the epistolary novel peak in popularity and the novel take a form recognizable to contemporary readers. I topic modeled and looked for twenty topics. My results:

While the results are too varied – excitingly so! – to take one look at them and declare unequivocally that letters are a feminine form, it is certainly exciting to see, in the first line, a group of words that reads “letter friend friends lucy richman happy mamma dear love hartford virtue life heart honor”. “Mamma dear love” is particularly indicative of the feminine content and themes that pervades this corpus. There are fewer topics that directly relate to privacy, a concept not quite as huge as femininity; “room” in line 5 and “house” in line 20, however, are words that reflect a theme of interiority. Interiority is closely related to privacy, for there is an elision between the physical space inside a house and the abstract notion of a woman’s space or realm. The space of the home and its attendant nuclear family is essential to a private/public divide. Just as Lara Cohen pointed to a conflation of underground spaces and underground/subversive ideas in nineteenth century city mysteries, so too are the interior spaces of the home and of the female mind conflated. Such an analysis comes from a reading of secondary sources and a close reading of the texts, particularly Clarissa (which sees a heroine literally writing from a closet – women had the closet, men had the coffee-house) but topic modeling both enforces and complicates that conclusion. Here, topic modeling doesn’t give us enough evidence as readers to assert that femininity is a key part of privacy, but it does point to the presence of interiority in a very literal sense. An observation of the presence of these physical spaces in these novels is key to a more in-depth exploration of the ways in which their literal presence is a key part of their thematic and abstract presence; a novel cannot represent a home as a key part of the inherently feminine private realm without actual rooms and houses.

“Letter,” “write,” and “read” in line 6 point to a self-awareness of the epistolary form. This self-awareness points to the letters status as an object and medium that is both public and private, indicating the necessity of one concept in the other’s existence. Embedded in the idea of a book of private letters between two individuals is the knowledge that other eyes, outside of the universe of the story, will be looking; the real world/fictional world divide brings to light the contradictions embedded in a femininity that is both private and subject to the male gaze.

Of course, not all words seem to point to valuable insights – “gutenberg” in lines 11, 13, and 15 points to the fact that many of the plain text files are from Project Gutenberg and thus have “Gutenberg” at the beginning of and throughout the text. It would have been nice to have a larger, cleaner corpus of texts, but given the obviousness of most words not actually in the text, this type of word popping up seems to be a very minor flaw in topic modeling.

In my investigation of femininity and privacy in eighteenth-century epistolary novels, largely written by women, topic modeling has proved itself to be an extremely exciting tool, though one that should not be understood as a wholly comprehensive close-reading replacement. Topic modeling cannot replace close reading; nothing can. And that is fine, because they accomplish different things. Close reading is fabulous for an in-depth examination of a books relationship to the characters, themes, or ideas, it represents; topic modeling is wonderful for figuring out what, exactly, these characters, themes, or ideas are. How often are they represented? Where are they represented in relation to one another? The presence of so many names indicates both an intriguing insight into the “experiments with subjectivity” these novels engage in, and the utility of topic modeling. Here, the model shows us what seems so obvious – names come up a lot – but that, as readers, we could very easily take for granted.

The digital is central to my project in that I have relied upon it to shake up underlying assumptions about what is or isn’t important in these books, and how that priority of themes relates to the gendered nature of epistolarity. The relationship between old books and digital methods is dynamic and productive: I can use topic modeling to gain new insights into eighteenth century novels. These insights are supported and fleshed out in reading secondary sources, and make me want to read these books even more!


Blei, David. “Probabilistic Topic Models.” Communications of the ACM 55.4 (2012) 77-84.


Clery, E. J. The Feminization Debate in Eighteenth-Century England: Literature, Commerce,

and Luxury. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Habermas, Jurgen. Trans. Thomas Berger. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001. PDF from Web.

Martens, Lorna. The Diary Novel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

McGirr, Elaine. “Interiorities.” The Cambridge History of the English Novel. Ed. Robert L. Caserio, Clement Hawes. 80-96. Web.

Spencer, Jane. “Women writers and the eighteenth-century novel.” The Cambridge Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel. Ed. John Richetti. 212-235. Web.



Katy Frank

Lying Titles: Truth Claims in the Paratext

Initial Concept

The 246$a field in our xml records specifies the full title of whatever work we are cataloging; the 599 fields are for authorship claims. The two, I noticed within the first couple of weeks on the project, had an odd way of overlapping. When we reference modern books we refer to the title and the author as separate entities. For example, I would say Harry Potter written by J.K. Rowling whereas if it was one of our early novels, I would enter Harry Potter written by J.K. Rowling as the title. This is where the idea for my project began to form. Why is the author part of the title? I began focusing more and more on the titles of the various works, some with strange truth claims, some without, and came to the realization that I choose to study in detail:  the titles are not separate from the text but are as much of a constructed element as the plot and characters. I had previously assumed a novel didn’t start until the first page of chapter one and that all the paratext that came before it—publication information, copyrights, the author’s name—was indisputable data that adhered to the reality of the text’s production. Due to its placement, I allotted titles into the same category as these other paratexts. However, I soon lost this conception. Many times ‘data’ like the author’s identity had been fictionalized. The titles themselves rather than being a way to merely identify each novel were used to set up conceits for their texts, conceits that more often than not encouraged the reader to assume that the events of the novel were true. Memoirs, histories, trewe accounts, found manuscripts, and lost letters all appeared in the most ridiculous fashions, so I made it the my mission to find out why so many titles were lying and if any were actually telling the truth.


My plan was simple. I wanted to find out the truth about some of the many strange titles I saw. While most were fairly obvious, I could not claim whether a title lied or not without evidence, so my process involved first finding a selection of texts with interesting titles that made a claim to truth, secondly researching as many of those titles as would be practical, and finally displaying each of the researched texts with an explanation about their veracity. Due to the ten week time restriction of END, starting large-scale historical research from scratch would not be possible, so my selection had to be limited to less obscure novels that have had some scholarly investigation in the past. An initial screening process allowed me to compile a smaller corpus before beginning more detailed research. This heavier searching involved studying author’s and their other works, digging up historical records such as documented correspondences, newspapers, and trial records, and reading reviews on the novels. By the end, I had roughly a dozen novels researched with the potential to go into the final display of my findings.

In addition to the hunt for reliable primary sources, I looked into secondary sources that discussed the development of novels and the fiction genre. Lennard Davis’ Factual Fictions: The Origins of the English Novel and Catharine Gallagher’s Rise of Fictionality gave me background for my project to better figure out why so many writer’s used these truth claims.


My project resulted in the understanding that these supposedly lying claims actually reveal the process of fiction’s development from the early 17th century. Fiction as we know it now did not always exist, especially in the form of novels. While there was folklore, epic poetry, a various other forms of dramatic retellings, the style of independently creating characters and plots was not very well established. Fiction grew in time with the rise of the novel. There is a clear tie between novels and news, not only in name but also in the fact that news accounts from the earlier centuries had very questionable credibility, serving more to entertain than to inform. News that had been sensationalized or even completely fabricated could be accepted just as eagerly as accurate stories, and one of the main reasons for this is the fact that no one had any way of knowing what was or wasn’t true. The inability to discern fact from fiction opened the gates for all types of falsified writings. Eventually a different sort of truth emerged that dealt more with the lessons a reader could draw from the events of the text than with the truths of the text’s contents. This was a truth that relied on moral significance and was created for the purpose of instructing others. Stories claimed to be true to encourage readers to not only identify with characters, but also to learn the lessons which ought to be applied to real life. This is one of the many ways the term ‘truth’ has split in regards to novels, but it became even more diverse as the ambiguity of fact and fiction in novels persisted. While some authors claimed that their novels were true to add legitimacy to their fictionalizations, others went the opposite direction by hiding behind their novel’s fictional format. Allegory, censorship, and altered names offered a thin cover under which writers could speak their minds and criticize the world through fictional counterparts. Although critics began to grow more serious in exposing false accounts around the 18th century, false claims remained in style as a commonly used trope in novels.

After learning this history through my research on fiction as a genre, I explored the question how does one define truth in terms of novels? The final selection of texts I used for this project was meant to represent a gradient of truth in fictional novels. Some, such as Sheppard Lee and A History of New York were deemed false to an extreme. Even the authorship details were lying claims meant to add to the setting of the novels. Other texts sat firmly on the line between true and false; Secret History admits within its own title that details have been altered for the sake of personal privacy while at the same time historical documents verify several elements of the text as accurate. Finding a novel that could be considered 100% truthful proved to be an impossible task, but technically none are 100% false either. If I were to continue with this project in the future, I would like to compare the merging of truth and fiction in these early novels to their modern counterparts because such a study would largely impact how we define various genres.


My finished project can be found on BuzzFeed with this link:

Several factors contributed to my choice to organize and display my project as a trivia quiz on Buzzfeed. The first was the nature of my own curiosity. I approached the ‘lying titles’ with amused incredulity. Guessing what was true or false was fun for me, and I wanted others to see the phenomenon in a similar light. I put up my research as a quiz rather than a non-interactive display in order to recreate the process of theory and discovery that I had experienced during the END project. There is a question, you guess at the answer then figure out an explanation. Those who first read these novels when they were published may have asked themselves similar questions about the fictional nature of their reading too.


Fact and Fictionality in Eighteenth Century Author Portraits

Background and Context for the Project

Prior to this summer, I didn’t have much exposure to eighteenth century literature, but I was familiar with eighteenth century art, thanks to a couple of art history courses. Though I’m an English major, art and art history have always been areas of interest for me, so I was interested in carrying out a project that involved both of these subjects. This led me to the realm of book illustration as a general topic for my final project, and from there I narrowed my focus specifically to frontispieces in eighteenth century novels. I chose to examine frontispieces, rather than illustrations throughout the text, both because they appear more frequently than in-text illustrations, and because they were easier to search using END’s data.

After settling on a broad focus for this project, two books fortuitously inspired a more specific approach for my project. In my second week with END (the first week we really began cataloging), I ambitiously decided to catalogue a 4-volume copy of Gulliver’s Travels, which contained a portrait of the fictional narrator Lemuel Gulliver. At the same time, I began researching the history and conventions of frontispieces in general. The majority of my initial information came from Jeanine Barchas’ book Graphic Design, Print Culture, and the Eighteenth-Century Novel, which includes a chapter on frontispieces. More specifically, Barchas’ argument focuses on fictional author portraits, and she uses Gulliver’s Travels as an object of study and analysis. I was intrigued by the idea of fictional author portraits in general, and was especially interested since I had just encountered the portrait of Gulliver myself, so as a result I decided to focus my project around this particular theme. I determined that the way I wanted to go about this was to examine and compare real and fictional author portraits in books that END cataloged. From here, I realized that the overarching theme encompassing my exploration of these portraits was an interrogation of the categories of fact and fiction, in both art and literature, and thus “Fact and Fictionality in Eighteenth Century Author Portraits” was born.

Because of this, my project in some ways operates on two levels. There is the very broad, theoretical level that seeks to engage with open-ended questions about the nature of fiction, the definition of the novel, and how we conceive of and understand truth in art and literature. Then there is a much more detail-oriented level, which seeks to analyze the portraits in a handful of books from END’s dataset, and formulate some ideas about the way these images function in relation to the books as a whole. I realized that my project involved these two threads early on, but I struggled for a while with balancing and reconciling them. I came up with many questions to explore and lots of interesting connections and parallels I wanted to pursue further, but much of this was too broad of a scope for the amount of time I actually had this summer. I definitely had to reevaluate what I could actually accomplish in 10 weeks, and while I’m mostly happy with my final result, I do think this project veers a bit into the realm of trying to touch on many ideas without really diving into any of them. Still, I tried to balance both breadth and depth here: one section of my project is devoted to theory and context, while the other is devoted to the images and books themselves. In the end, I think I was able to strike a happy medium between the two, but I also know that there’s much more this project could do, and a lot more research to be done, though I view this as a positive thing.

Methodology and Project Development

Since my project focus was on such a visual medium, I knew that I wanted my final product to have a significant visual component as well. I was already familiar with Omeka from a class I took, and I had this in mind from the start as a potential site for building my final project. Because Omeka creates digital exhibits, it seemed like a good fit for a project that focused on frontispieces. I really wanted an end result where people could actually look at the frontispieces carefully, but I also wanted to include my own analysis of the images, so the exhibit format Omeka provided worked out nicely. It became additionally convenient to use because Kat Poje was in the process of creating an Omeka site for her Preface Project from 2015, and we all helped her out with this. Since there were many of us working on her site, she wrote up some guidelines for the kinds of information she wanted to include about each item, and we also had some group discussions about the best way to approach creating this exhibit. As a result, when I started creating my personal Omeka site, I had Kat’s guidelines to work from, and her finished project to use as a reference and model, which was immensely helpful.

Before I actually created the exhibit, though, I needed to do some research. Just like the project itself, there were two main components to my research: one was theoretical, contextual, and background research, and the other was exploring and compiling books in END’s records that I wanted to look at. I’ve included a bibliography at the bottom of this post of the works I referenced and found useful in the initial stages of this project, and you can also find more in depth information about these sources on my Omeka site itself.

In order to identify novels in END’s dataset that contained author frontispiece portraits, I searched an Excel spreadsheet that compiled all of END’s data through last summer. I focused on searching the $300b field, which notes whether a novel contains illustrations (and specifies whether the novel has a frontispiece or portrait in it), and the $500a field, which contains general notes, and was sometimes useful for additional information about any illustrations a book may have. I also explored END’s data through OpenRefine, which was a more user-friendly interface, and searched END’s Flickr account to identify any intriguing images I may have missed.

My search was not confined to a specific time period or to specific authors or types of books; rather, I sought to discover as many books with author frontispieces as possible, and to compile a set that covered a range of types. Initially, I thought I would focus on the 1780s, since this was the decade we were cataloging this summer, but there weren’t enough books with frontispieces from the 1780s alone to focus my research on. In addition, I faced some roadblocks because the Singer-Mendenhall Collection was in the process of moving this summer, so some of the books I wanted to look at were not readily available for me to see in person. As a result, I decided to just search the records for any novels that seemed relevant and interesting to my project, and narrow my final selection from there based on accessibility. I limited my final project to 8 books for similar reasons, and also so that I could provide some sense of breadth, while still allowing for specificity in my research and analysis of each novel. Since my specific interest was in comparing fictional and authentic author portraits, I tried to select novels so that each type of portrait is roughly half of my total set. I also attempted to include some women, though they don’t appear as authors or in author portraits as frequently as male writers.

My goal was not to create an exhaustive account of all of the novels in END’s records with author frontispiece portraits, and I’m sure I did not identify all of them. The selections on my site are a portion of what I found in my research, and these in turn are only a portion of the total number of novels with author portraits at my disposal. As such, I didn’t seek to make any broad claims about the function and purpose these portraits served, but rather to closely examine individual cases, and to make comparisons between these. This project can be extended in myriad ways, and while I’m certainly interested in continuing this work, my hope is that this site may be useful for others to build upon as well.

The Omeka Exhibit

My exhibit is loosely divided into four categories, based on both the genres of the works as a whole, and the types of author portraits the works contain. The first section focuses on satires, and the ways in which portraits can participate in the genre as satirical elements (heavily influenced by Jeanine Barchas’ analysis and argument about Gulliver’s Travels). This section contains Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift and Salmagundi, by Washington Irving.

The next section examines what I’ve termed “semi-autobiographical” or “semi-fictional” narratives, meaning narratives in which the author is also a character within the novel, but the work as a whole is not necessarily one hundred percent true. In each of these works, the author portrait depicts a real person, but that persons relationship to the narrative, or role within it, may be fictionalized to some degree. This section contains the narratives of Olaudah EquianoBamfylde-Moore CarewPylades and Corinna, and The Pilgrim’s Progress, by John Bunyan.

Then, I look at one author portrait depicting a completely fictional character in Letters writ by a Turkish Spy. This is comparable to the portraits in the first section of the exhibit, which also depict fictional figures, but here the portrait does not serve any satirical function, so I separated it.

Finally, I examine an author portrait that actually depicts the editor of the work, in Aesop’s Fables. Here, I examined how someone who is not the original creator of the stories is framed as and takes the position of author of the work, and what purpose this claim to authority may serve.

Because my research was so narrowly focused, and constrained by the amount of time I had, I did not set out to find the answer to a big research question. Still, over the course of this project, I made some observations, and came to some conclusions about the work that frontispiece author portraits do in the eighteenth century novels I looked at. I want to briefly state some of these here, in the hopes that they may be useful for further research, even if they prove to be wrong.

Author portraits showed up occasionally for a well-known author and in an author’s collected works (both true for John Bunyan, and in a few other cases which I did not include in this exhibit), and appeared occasionally as well for fictional characters, more than once with a satirical aim. Yet neither of these showed up with the frequency that another type of portrait did, the explanation for which was unanticipated and as a result the most interesting to me.

This main trend is that author portrait appeared most frequently when the author in question was to some degree involved in the narrative of the story itself. This is why the second section of my exhibit is the largest and also the most loosely defined–each work I examined was fictional in some degree, and the decision was made to include all of these works in END’s collection of novels, yet it seemed difficult to decisively say that they were all novels in the traditional and accepted sense. What is clear to me is that each of these works featured authors who were also characters, and who had a strong overall presence in the narrative, and this seems to have influenced the presence of portraits. Though I haven’t done much research or theorizing to explore this trend further, what it suggests to me is that people are most interested in authors and authorship when that seems directly related to the narrative. It seems that here the stakes are higher, and perhaps suggests that readers are more likely to be invested (or want to be invested) in a figure that is part of the story they’re reading, as opposed to merely the source of this story. This, perhaps, is the most indicative example of the solidifying and embrace of the novel as a genre: when interest in characters (or authors as characters) began to outpace interest in authors as standalone figures, the novel developed real staying power.

Next Steps

Inevitably, I was unable to do everything I initially set out to do for this project, and it felt like the further it developed, the more I discovered new routes to pursue and additional pieces to add to the project. I want to mention a few of these here, to suggest ways the project can (and hopefully will) be extended in the future, both by myself and perhaps by others who have similar interests, or an interest in a particular aspect of this study.

Something I was excited by early on was the idea of making a comparison between the way authors are (or aren’t) represented in eighteenth century novels, and the ways they’re represented in novels today. Unlike in the eighteenth century, authors are virtually always shown in books now, usually with both an image and a short biography. This has become a standardized piece of paratext separate from a frontispiece, while the function of the frontispiece has, in many ways, been subsumed by images on the covers of books. I wanted to dive deeper into these changes and explore their implications, and I also wanted to create some sort of more fun examination of this. I was considering trying to re-imagine some eighteenth century novels as twenty-first century novels (what would the author descriptions be? What would be on the cover?), and was also interested in doing the reverse, and imagining some twenty-first century novels as eighteenth century ones. I still love this idea, but I realized that not only did I not really have the time for this, since my project was already attempting to encompass a lot, but also that it would require more graphic design skills than I have at hand. I would have had to do some experimenting and playing around, which I was and still am willing to do, but this did not feel like the most important piece of my project, so I decided to set it aside for the moment, though I still think it would be a valuable addition.

I was also interested in doing a more in depth comparison of the portrait contained in these books to painted portraits of the time, to think about how the medium of the book affects the medium of the portrait, but this, too, was too much for the summer.

On the more logistical side of things, I’d like to create a digital repository of all of the images, metadata, and text on my Omeka site, so that the materials I used are easily accessible and secure in the event that the Omeka exhibit itself expires. The exhibit should stay up as an extension of Penn’s Institutional Repository, but I also want to have a back up in the case that this eventually is removed.

I explored the possibility of creating this site through my Reclaim account, so it would be tied to my personal domain, but I had some technical difficulties with this and decided to create it directly through Omeka instead. Still, I’m interested in exploring options for migrating this site to my own domain, so that it’s more directly tied with all of my work this summer, and with my digital identity in general. Finally, I’d like to change the name of the site itself. I created the initial site ( as a test and experiment, thinking I could change the domain name later. As of right now, I haven’t been able to do that, but I will continue to try, as I think the site needs a better, more descriptive and searchable name.

Reflection: Sleuthing

Prior to my employment at END, I’d never seen an 18th century edition of a novel (or, frankly, many contemporary editions of 18th century novels, either. The earliest book I’ve read is Huck Finn.) so many of the day’s common paratexts and features were unusual and surprising to me. I’d never seen the word ‘advertisement’ used to refer to anything besides a product listing, I’d never heard of a subscribers’ list. I’d never seen books with titles 20 words long, and didn’t understand why those titles had so many semicolons in them. I’m a social scientist at heart, however, so the vast majority of my questions focused on the social world that produced the book-artifacts I held in my hands. How did this book move from my mind of the original author to my foam cradle at UPenn’s Van Pelt-Dietrich Library, summer 2016?

As a result, I came to love the 700 and 710 fields of my catalogs. In these fields, all of the nonfictional names in a book’s paratexts are listed and, if possible, authorized. The author of the text, the authors of the paratexts, the author of the epigraph, a former owner whose name appears on a bookplate or in an inscription, etc. In the best of circumstances, I can just search a given full name on VIAF, find it, an authorize it. Rarely, however, is this the case for the set of novels we’re cataloging. For many names, only a last name exists, or none at all. In more challenging circumstances, a library bookplate has covered up an inscription, or else the inscription was written in some illegible hand. In many cases, as with the names of subscribers, the identities of these names are impossible to authorize, if I were to embark on such a task, even with a full name given.

While I could easily just leave a name unauthorized, I have come to enjoy the obscure successes of matching the name in a book to a name online. I’ve become a literary internet sleuth, combing through bad OCR of a dictionary of Scottish emigrants to Canada, or census lists and marriage licenses for small Virginia towns, or, my slightly morbib favorite, entries on A book I cataloged recently featured a bookplate signed by the man whose residence, (according to an odd post on an odd website, hosted one of the first meetings of the Westmeath Hunt Club, an Irish organization of recreational hunters who made use of foxhounds. Another had a subscriber named Preserved Fish, a name that is, amazingly, not exclusive to this subscriber–there are at least two others, but this subscriber is the only one from Vermont. One inscriber was the close relative of an Australian colonist responsible for instigating biowarfare on an Aborigine community (He sold them poisoned flour).

My most frequent and most successful 700s Google expeditions are for the first names of publishers, printers, and booksellers listed only by their last name. Only rarely do I have the pleasure to find interesting back stories. Regardless, my frequent Internet detours have all been an incredibly interesting exercise in what search engines can and cannot do. In my conversations with librarians, and the history of librarianship, I’ve heard often that the advent of the Internet and Google at one time appeared to threaten the entire profession. If someone can simply type in keywords into a search engine, then of what use is a librarian’s research skills and resources? Though I knew when I started that libraries and librarians are indispensable institutions, my constant (but enjoyable!) slog through the 700s has proven that to me in full.

Google’s ability to predict what exactly it is you are looking for continues (terrifyingly) to improve, but I’ve found that its powerful algorithms often still don’t get me where I need to go. I hit paywalls, French blog posts I can’t read, OCR too gibberish-y for me to do a successful command+F search. Google doesn’t know that when I search, for example, “smith dublin printer,” I’m looking for someone, last name Smith, who worked as a printer in Dublin, and not looking for someone, first name Smith, in Dublin, who happens to be selling their ink jet printer on Craigslist. More scholarly search engines like VIAF or WorldCat or the ESTC or ECCO or the Oxford Biography Index &c. &c., are helpful in some ways but not in others: they often store more relevant and specific information, but at the cost of navigating a badly designed user interface and poorly linked data.

While I look forward to the web sleuthing of the 700s fields in each book I catalog, I’m so grateful when I find the information I need quickly and accurately. Working at END has encouraged me to rededicate myself to providing accessible, precise, user-friendly data, online and in print. I think more critically now about tagging, error-free text transcriptions, data organization, and online interfaces. The internet does a lot for libraries, and libraries do a lot for the internet, and my trials and victories in the 700s fields have me excited for the future of that relationship.

Reflection: The Social Side of Cataloging

A lot of the Early Novels Database project feels like common data entry. We see the paratexts, learn the various data fields, and plug and chug from one record to the next. Except for the very first week on the job (which was spent learning with our more experienced peers), the day to day protocols have little to do with social interactions. Looking at it this way, the act of cataloging itself seems like it should be a solitary experience. That couldn’t be more wrong. The END Project in its entirety revolves around the idea of access, shared knowledge, and communal interest. Every step of the novel documenting process we employ here exponentially expands the books’ sphere of influence, meaning the availability of the book and the amount of discourse on it increase constantly.

Let’s start from the very beginning: many of the novels we work with were once part of private libraries. Their original owners and maybe a couple of friends and acquaintances had the opportunity to handle them, and that’s it. From there the novels passed from hand to hand until eventually they ended up here in one of our libraries’ collections. With this simple move, private became public. However, though thousands of curious people can get in to interact with the novels, this level of access is not enough; for the most part these lesser known texts are still hovering in dusty obscurity in dark shelving units.

Now END plays a more active role in the socializing of these novels. Why are we cataloging these things? Who really cares that Blah-Blah a Novel was written in 1863? The answer is we do. There is a reason we, the catalogers, sit in a single room together for nearly seven hours Monday through Friday when there are plenty of places (warmer places) we could spread out to. Instead of completely burying our heads in clicking keys and xml displays we ask questions, share amusing footnotes, and work together to puzzle out whether messily written inscriptions say “Bill” or “Belle.” This isn’t just for the sake of accuracy in the records, but for our own curiosity as well. There is something exciting about the act of discovery that compels us to share our finds, if for no other reason than one person finds it interesting and therefor another might as well.

So far this is only one group of catalogers in one room, but the END has branched off to another school as well and is hoping to bring in even more. Now there is twice as much exposure for the novels as we swap back and forth with check-ins, discussions, and all manner of live interaction. We get to know each other in this digital humanities community. On top of that we are generating a discourse through our records.

By far the largest step cataloging takes into the social sphere—and the last step of our process—is digitizing various pages of the novel and throwing them up on to a several social media platforms, notably Flickr, where we post pictures of every novel we catalog. Illustrations and titles that used to only be seen by a handful of people over the course of a lifetime have become available for literal millions to observe. It is quite common of the course of a cataloging day to hear someone casually mention tweeting one of their pictures or commenting verbally on another person’s withknown post. To put it simply, cataloging with this project is a highly social experience not just for the catalogers but for the novels as well.

Reflection: Digital Confidence

This post is a collection of thoughts that came out of a conversation I had with Colette about our experience at END this summer, and our feelings about learning new digital tools.

As English majors without a lot of prior experience with or exposure to digital humanities, Colette and I found the idea of using digital tools in conjunction with studying eighteenth century novels to be somewhat foreign. We agreed that one of the great things about END is the fact that it helps us reconcile these two fields, by demonstrating how digital tools can be integrated into the study of English. END emphasizes the fact that the humanities and the digital realm are not two totally separate spheres, and it’s been useful to see how the two can work together and reinforce one another. It’s been especially helpful to learn this through actually working on a project, as opposed to reading theory about digital humanities. Writing code in MarcXML while simultaneously paging through fragile eighteenth-century novels may sound odd, but it’s become routine and feels completely natural at this point, which says a lot about how successfully END links the material and the digital spheres.

Because this feels so natural, coding and digital tools as a whole seem less intimidating now. As Colette mentions in her post, so much of my intimidation in this realm stemmed from my lack of exposure to it, while what exposure I had often felt discouraging. Here, however, the fact that I had no experience with MarcXML, and had never heard of topic modeling prior to this summer wasn’t treated as a drawback, and I echo Colette in saying how much this has impacted me. For instance, we’ve started playing around with the command line, and while we may not be able to do anything significant there (or even fully understand what it is, let alone what it does) knowing that it exists still feels significant. While I doubt I’ll use the command line much outside of END, it’s been so affirming to be treated as though I can learn these tools.

Because we’re in such a supportive and comfortable environment, and because we’re beginning to see how digital tools and the humanities can be related, we’re also motivated to learn more about digital tools. In the past, my perception of computer science, coding, and digital tools was that they belonged in the realm of the sciences or STEM. I felt intimidated by them, didn’t understand them, and didn’t really want to understand them, because it didn’t seem like there was much point for someone with my interests. As a result, the fact that END makes coding and the digital realm relevant to English and the humanities feels like a huge deal to me. If I’m being completely honest, my heart still belongs more to the humanities aspect of DH than to the digital one, but I do feel like I have a much better understanding of what it actually means to work with digital tools, and my attitude towards them is much less reluctant than before.

In discussing this with Colette, we both agreed that this evolution has been possible largely because of the encouraging, open setting we’re in at END. Being able to talk casually with one another and pose questions to the group makes the job less stressful and more fun, and it removes any degree of intimidation we may have felt at the start. We’ve both been struck by how we’ve never been made to feel bad about our lack of knowledge or understanding about a topic, and the way we’ve been encouraged and patiently taught has also done a lot to motivate us to learn more.

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