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  • Digital Bibliography and the Irish Book Trades
  • Justin Tonra (bio)

As the technology that records and stores our cultural heritage increasingly moves from bibliographical to digital media, what do we do with the books? This concern is a reflection of Jerome McGann's injunction that "the whole of our cultural inheritance has to be recurated and reedited in digital forms and institutional structures."1 What is lost in the process of converting an individual book into a digital surrogate is a topic that has received much attention in recent years, even if the conclusions of this inquiry have not always been heeded by those in the business of digitizing books.2 The opportunities and challenges of this remediation are evident in examining the history of digital resources such as Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO), which are crucial to eighteenth-century studies.3 What that history also reveals is that for as long as there have been books, there have been lists of books. In our focus on how digitization variously enriches and imperils the integrity of the material book and its diverse modes of signification, we risk missing similar opportunities and challenges represented by the digitization of quantitative records of the book trades: book lists, directories, and catalogues.

Scholars of the long eighteenth century are ably served by full-text databases such as ECCO, Early English Books Online (EEBO), and by bibliographical resources like the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC),4 which contain or record a majority of the surviving literary works of the [End Page 337] period. But what research questions can be addressed by considering the totality of these resources as the object of study rather than as reference works? Two major possibilities come into focus: large scale quantitative bibliographical analysis and the linking of data across disparate digital book trade records. Both offer opportunities for, among other things, longue durée and transnational analysis of the early modern book trades, and both are lines of inquiry that have the potential to transform our study of several aspects of eighteenth-century Ireland.

However, one of the possible obstacles to be overcome is a suspicion of quantitative methods within literary studies, which stems from these methods' apparent claims to objectivity and authority which are inevitably and inherently invalid in a humanities context. Certain sub-fields of bibliography—particularly the enumerative—have long been concerned with counting, measuring, and other empirical activities but lack the qualitative accompaniment required to elucidate a compelling account of what lies beneath the numbers. Book history aims to bridge the cultural and methodological impasse by using the quantitative data of bibliography as the basis for the literary and historical analysis common in the humanities. Indeed, recent book historians have argued that their field accommodates a range of scale and scope that makes it uniquely suited to this marriage of the quantitative and qualitative; the increasing prevalence of digital tools in the humanities strengthens book history's position. Katherine Bode, for instance, states that "[q]uantitative book histories provide a framework for acknowledging the limitations of data while upholding the importance of analyses based on empirical evidence."5

What knowledge can quantitative bibliography and book history expose that would not otherwise be evident? Both share with distant reading a conviction that the study of canonical works offers only false or partial insights into the broad history of the field, whether book history, literary history, or literary criticism.6 Just as the solution for canonical literary criticism and history cannot be for the lone scholar to read the entire mass of published literature of the eighteenth century, however, the data of large scale quantitative bibliography and book history are beyond the capacity of the individual scholarly mind. This fact informs our desire to enlist the computer to help crunch the exhaustive numbers found in printed volumes of quantitative bibliography. The desire to retrofit legacy sources to a set of interchangeable technical standards lies at the heart of a current strand of interest in quantitative bibliography, with a range of regional and national bibliographical resources currently exploring the feasibility of this idea: British Book Trade Index, the Scottish Book Trade Index, the London Book Trades database, and the...