Students, faculty strive to create digital database

Three students and one faculty member at SIUE are striving to create a database for Susan Warner’s “Wide Wide World” on the World Wide Web, a task involving no fewer that 100 reprints dating back to 1851. The project is part of the work of Jessica Despain, assistant professor of English language and literature. Despain has a special interest in the digital humanities, a category in which her current project falls.

“Digital humanities is a field that studies issues or texts but with a digital methodology in mind, so that you could ask research questions you could not ask if you did not have digital media there to help you ask that question or to help you visualize that question in some way,” said Despain.

(left to right) Wendy Simpson, Jessica Despain, and Kelly Walsh presents their work at the CAS Colloquium.

Digital humanities is a necessary tool to conduct the kind of research that interests Despain. The goal of the project is to put together the different illustrations and variants of the reprints into a single database. Getting all of the reprints into a database will allow researchers to process the large amounts of data much more efficiently.

The students who are assisting Despain are currently compiling historical research about the time period, geography, publishers, and readers of “The Wide Wide World.” Despain said that this will give a broad-based “text” that users can utilize to map different reprints, examine differences in cultural choices, and contextualize this with the background of the publishers and readers.

“My work overall is about transAtlantic book history in the 19th century and the ways in which books were distributed between Britain and the U.S. and how that distribution sometimes manifested different cultural ideas or cultural anxieties,” said Despain. “Particularly because the book is an object that we tend to invest with a lot of importance and even sometimes we refer to it as a body, a textual body.”

(Left to Right) Consuella Kelly, Jessica Despain, and Kelly Walsh work on "The Wide Wide World - Digital Edition" project.

Despain stated that “The Wide Wide World” was published in 1851, and before 1951 about 108 reprints have been made. An exact count on the reprints is difficult to give according to Despain.

The students working with Despain on this project are Wendy Simpson, a senior English language and literature major, creative writing minor; Kelly Walsh, a junior double major in English language and literature and political science; and Consuella Kelly, a first year graduate student in English language and literature.

Despain, Simpson, and Kelly presented their work at the CAS Colloquium on March 24th, 2011. When they were considering participating in the Colloquium, Walsh was concerned that their project would not fit into the topic “Thinking about America.”

“When I first heard the title of this year’s CAS Colloquium I was a bit worried our project wouldn’t be “American” enough, or modern enough for the theme. However, I think the novel we worked on, “The Wide, Wide World,” is profoundly American and it’s huge surge of popularity and subsequent fall suggests something important about American audience and changing taste through it’s history,” said Walsh. “I also think the work we are doing within the digital humanities, the setup of a scholarly archive, and the issues surrounding the permanence of information stored through contemporary technology is an issue which is not only modern but considers the future of literature in America’s future.”

Simpson stated that she believes that the project will help to preserve the work the Warner created. She stated that it is important to remember that copyright laws in the 19th century were very obscure, and this caused the works of many authors to be changed.

“One country could print freely the work of an author in a different country.  By doing this, our country has risked losing many works through publishers of other countries editing [the work] to better suit their audiences,” said Simpson. “The modern technology will help us understand the work and its transition through time.  By being aware of this transition, we are able to prepare for future technologies so that we can transfer all information over to any future mediums.”

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