Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Waking Up in the British Library

Emma Beer reports on a one-day conference on using Early English Books Online in teaching and research in history and English literature.

‘The existence of EEBO has completely transformed my teaching as well as my own scholarly life -both entirely for the better’. Regius Professor Quentin Skinner, University of Cambridge.

Delegates may have been surprised to hear about a pamphlet discussing Mary II’s breasts as the subject for academic discussion at the ‘Waking up in the British Library’ event hosted by the John Rylands University Library. But it served only to illustrate the kind of serendipitous discoveries that Early English Books Online (EEBO) [1] facilitates in teaching and research. Following on from the success of the launch of Early English Books Online - Text Creation Partnership [2] in autumn last year, this event aimed to look in detail at the teaching and research applications of this resource in English literature and history.

Early English Books Online contains digital facsimile page images of virtually every book printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America and works elsewhere from 1473-1700 - from the first book printed in English by William Caxton through the age of Spenser and Shakespeare and the tumult of the English Civil War. The Text Creation Partnership has converted many of these images into fully-searchable texts.

The four academics speaking at the event each found that EEBO democratised research into England’s cultural heritage and made access possible to a much wider audience of undergraduates. EEBO has transformed the way in which research and teaching is undertaken. Analogies drawn with the revolution in scholarly practices following the invention of the printing press were convincing enough for one institution to sign up to EEBO-TCP the following day.

Our keynote speaker, Prof. Justin Champion, discussed the way in which EEBO not only influences teaching and research in a traditional sense, but also shifts the dynamic between teacher and learner, invigorating new avenues of research for both. Rather than seeing innovative technology as detracting from traditional modes of research, Champion saw developments such as EEBO facilitating the elementary objectives of teaching. ‘If we collectively assume that one of the central functions of an arts and humanities degree is to develop skills of assessment, interpretation, and analysis, that’s best done in dialogue with primary sources.’

What else does EEBO offer for the academic user? Social, spatial and intellectual accessibility organised Champion’s thoughts on the subject. Greater numbers of people from more diverse backgrounds now have access to the rare book rooms of the major research libraries, ‘anywhere, anytime’. Intellectually, resources of the quality of EEBO are likely to encourage uptake of other resources too. They also make for a more harmonious partnership between teaching and learning.

Dr. Alan Marshall also identified the changing dynamic between students and lecturers. Organising tutorials around EEBO allowed him to join his undergraduate students in their hunt for research topics. They all, essentially, became ‘historical researchers’ working with non-canonical texts and critically engaging with them. Moreover, he added, ‘What they are turning out is actually helping me’.

Other speakers included Dr. Clare Pilsworth, a Research Fellow from the Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, and Dr. Matthew Steggle, from Sheffield Hallam University. Dr. Pilsworth found that using EEBO in the classroom certainly reduced her workload and stimulated interest with her students. Dr. Steggle found a sympathetic audience to his observation that ‘There is a problem with EEBO..when you start playing with it you find yourself doing all sorts of things that weren’t what you imagined..it’s as addictive as a computer game’. He was also enthralled by the new ways it enabled research across texts. Years of his PhD research were overshadowed by a search of EEBO-TCP that took just a couple of minutes.

The conference also welcomed guest speakers from University of Michigan (Dr. Mark Sandler), the Text Creation Partnership at the University of Oxford (Emma Leeson) and the publishers, ProQuest Information and Learning (Dr. Peter White) who gave delegates a full sense of the history and continuing development of the resource. Dr. Jonathan Gibson, from the Higher Education Academy for English ran a taster tutorial in the hands-on session.

The Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) would like to thank the ‘visionary librarian’ and chair Dr. Diana Leitch, who has had a long association with the EEBO resource.

Academic Events Involving EEBO

EEBO in Undergraduate Studies Essay Competition for 2005

ProQuest Information and Learning and the Early English Books Online (EEBO) Text Creation Partnership are sponsoring an essay competition for undergraduate students. Deadline for receipt of essays is 31October 2005. Prizes will be announced in January 2006 [4].


  1. Early English Books Online http://eebo.chadwyck.com/home
  2. EEBO-Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP) http://www.lib.umich.edu/tcp/eebo/
  3. Details of the Call for Papers at http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=de_materialising_event
  4. For further details, please see http://www.lib.umich.edu/tcp/eebo/edu/edu_essay.html

Further Details

Power point presentations from the day are available from:
http://www.jisc.ac.uk/wakingup.html .

Thanks to a JISC-sponsored deal, EEBO-TCP is available for all FE and HE institutions for a nominal hosting charge. http://www.jisc.ac.uk/index.cfm?name=coll_eebo&src=alpha

The JISC is very interested in hearing about the ways in which academics are using EEBO in their teaching and research. Please email emma.beer@ahds.ac.uk

Author Details

Emma Beer
Resource Co-ordinator
Arts and Humanities Data Service
King’s College London

Email: emma.beer@ahds.ac.uk
Web site: http://www.ahds.ac.uk/

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