- Editor’s Note
The annual meeting of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies (ASECS) at Los Angeles in 2015 included a panel entitled “Historical Criticism and Eighteenth-Century Studies,” with papers by Margaret J. M. Ezell, Robert D. Hume, Howard D. Weinbrot, and a response by James A. Winn. No doubt because of the distinction of these scholars, as well as the relevance of the topic, the panel was extremely popular—every seat in a fairly large room was taken, with about twenty-five people standing in the back. Given the obvious strong interest in this panel, we thought it would be a good idea to devote a special issue to “Historical Criticism and Eighteenth-Century Studies,” which would give the panelists an opportunity to develop their original twenty-minute presentations into more substantial essays.
While historical criticism, obviously, has long been a fruitful scholarly approach in our field, it may be especially timely to reflect on it now. There was a day, not too long ago, when most of the important historical critical research in our field was undertaken by scholars at major research universities, who had access to extensive libraries, and the support, both in terms of time and money, to travel to special collections. If you were a professor at a small liberal-arts college in Minnesota, say, looking forward to three new preparations in the fall, chances are you wouldn’t be spending the summer in the British Library. But things have changed. Electronic databases, [End Page 1] such as EEBO and ECCO, have made it possible for a great many more scholars to do such research, since many of us now have a rare-book library no farther away than our computer, and the databases are “searchable.” As Robert D. Hume reports, “One afternoon with Digital Burney brought me more information about the theater manager John Rich than I might have found in a year sitting in the British Library.” In short, we are now seeing more and more people engaged in serious historical research, and they hail from universities and colleges, big and small, all across the country.
But there remains an obstacle: EEBO and ECCO are run by for-profit companies, and in a time when administrators seem bent on devoting more resources to STEM, traditionally at the expense of the humanities and arts, it becomes difficult, especially for smaller colleges, to justify the cost of an expensive database that is only going to serve a handful of people. One hopes that ASECS might step in; we’re fairly certain members wouldn’t mind a slight increase in dues if they knew it would make ECCO accessible to their colleagues (membership in the Renaissance Society of America includes access to EEBO). Also, it’s hard to think of a better of way of attracting new members to ASECS. [End Page 2]