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Beyond the Paper Chase: Building a Comprehensive Online Romantics BibliographyA Progress Report
Kyle Grimes, University of Alabama in Birmingham
Prepared for "Digitizing Romanticism," Session chaired by Neil Fraistat, University of Maryland
Part 4: The Current State of the Bibliography
As I’m sure is evident from the remarks above, the current version of the Romantic Circles Bibliography is still very much under construction. I am increasingly content with the underlying design—the division into related bibliography, author, and subject tables—and I continue to enter items into the database, both to test the Bibliography’s ability to record relevant information and to provide material upon which to try various techniques for searches, queries, and filters. It has been, however, a rather tedious process. In June, for instance, it took a week to completely rebuild the database structure when a software upgrade exposed all sorts of unworkable flaws in my original design. Nonetheless, the trial database now has several hundred items cataloged, including all issues of the Keats-Shelley Journal from the 1990s, all the romantics articles from PMLA in the 90s, most (not quite all) of the articles that have appeared on Romanticism on the Net, a scattering of articles from Studies in Romanticism and the European Romantic Review, and so forth. (By the time the database goes online, I hope to have cataloged the complete contents of the half dozen or so principal romantics journals and web resources from the 1990s.) And while I have been busy entering and then searching these materials, the database has begun to reveal its strengths and weaknesses as a research tool.
Among the strengths of the Bibliography, the subject headings and (especially) the brief abstracts/descriptions of the items will I think prove both useful and interesting to romantics scholars. I have set up the basic entry and search forms so that the item descriptions are immediately present as one is flipping through the results of any particular search, and these descriptions provide a much clearer and more detailed view of each source item than is available in more general-purpose research databases. Another major strength of the Bibliography—assuming I can work out the technical details—will be the capacity to design queries to search virtually any field recorded in the bibliography. It will be a relatively simple matter, for instance, to design searches to locate, say, all items published on The Last Man between 1978 and 1990, or, to offer another example, to find all the items that offer some biographical information on or take a biographical approach to John Keats. All of this works beautifully in the Access 2000 version of the database, and, when I manage to work through the internet-connectivity problems, these capabilities should also be freely available using an ordinary web browser on Romantic Circles.
Chief among the weaknesses of the Bibliography is a kind of inconsistency—hence confusion—about how to build subject keywords that are both accurate and flexible. In some cases, the issue is quite simple. For instance, critical works that examine the influence of painting on the writing of the romantics are easy to categorize. (The RC keyword is “Arts: Painting.”) It is likewise easy to categorize materials that focus on particular events, provide conventional critical readings of literary works, draw connections between socio-historical movements and literature, offer new readings of archival records, etc. But most recently published materials are far more ambiguous. It is often difficult to know, for example, whether a given historicist reading of some literary-cultural artifact should be cataloged under the headings of “Gender” or “Rhetoric” or “Political Discourse” or “Feminism” or “Print Culture: Reading and Reception” or "Economics: Women: Socio-political status" or some other psycho-social label. At present the Bibliography allows one to enter multiple RC Keywords, but with many works it is difficult even to imagine exactly what constellation of keywords might most accurately represent the item. The danger, of course, is that too much overlap between keywords will make searches less precise and therefore less effective.
Over the next couple of months I will be doing another (and I hope nearly the last) major revision on the fundamental design of the database. One change that I know about already will be the addition of a field called TopicGenre in the KeySet table; this column will enable the Bibliography to record whether the cataloged item is primarily about, say, “prose: narrative fiction” or “poetry: lyrics and other short forms” or “prose: travel writing.” At present, these genres are listed among the possible choices under the RC Keywords, but they seem to deserve a category to themselves. The inclusion of such a TopicGenre field will, of course, facilitate searches on particular literary forms. Also, during this next revision, I am both hopeful and optimistic that some of the RC Keyword confusion mentioned above can be, if not eliminated, at least eased.
Once this “final” revision is complete, I should be able to address the more nettlesome issue of internet connectivity. It is not entirely clear to me at this point just how this problem will be solved, but I am quite confident that it will be solved. One possibility, as mentioned above, would be to use the WebPage function that is already included in the Access2000 software. A second possibility would be to export the tables from the Access database into some other, more network-compatible software package. This approach would probably entail some initial software expense, but it might yield a more functional database, and it would likely also solve some potential NT vs. UNIX compatibility problems. A third possibility would be to use the Access database to generate individual web pages for each item in the bibliography and then build a subject-tree website with these individual items.
comments most welcome ...
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