English 411: The EEBO Assignment


Early English Books Online, or EEBO, “contains digital facsimile[s] … of virtually every work printed in England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and British North America and works in English printed elsewhere from 1473-1700.”  That’s a lot of books — something like 125,000 individual titles and editions.

They don’t all look as good as this colour image at left. In fact, EEBO’s images are scanned PDFs from microfilms, some of which date from the mid-20th century. Microfilms were the last century’s Google Books, but you couldn’t search inside them. They replicated and preserved material — manuscripts, printed books, newspapers, foreign dissertations — and compressed it into fantastically small spaces. When I began my graduate work in the 1990s, I would wind microfilm reels into a reader to look at early printed books and dissertations from other universities. The result was something like our sense, today, that as long as you have a good window onto reproduced images (browser screen or microfilm reader) you can do academic research anywhere.

Then EEBO came along to digitize those images, and to put them into a searchable interface. Many are also now internally searchable: that is, you can not only find all of the texts by John Milton, you can find all of the places in those texts where Milton uses particular words or phrases.

That’s pretty impressive, but it’s not necessary to the EEBO assignment in English 411. The goal of this assignment is to get you working with reproductions of early modern books, so you appreciate the printed forms in which 17th century readers encountered poetry. Here’s what you need to do:

Part 1 (750 words)

This assignment has two parts.

In Part 1, you will choose any poet we are reading in the course and find his or her poem in EEBO. Then you’ll write a description of the book they appear in. Here’s how:

  1. First, decide whether you’re going to work on Milton’s Paradise Lost or one of the shorter poems in the Penguin Book of Renaissance Verse (ed. Norbrook & Woudhuysen).
  2. Then look in these editions at the dates and exact titles of the 17th-century printed books in which these poems appeared. For the shorter poems, look them up individually in “Notes to the Text” at the back. For Milton in the John Leonard edition, see page 289 (or elsewhere if you’re using a different edition); and ignore anything that’s a manuscript or is printed after 1700.
  3. Use this information to search EEBO for the book that your chosen poem appeared in, and to view the book on your computer. See my tutorial for step-by-step instructions.
  4. Describe the book in about 750 words, focusing on both its form and its contents. What is it like to read this book? How is it different from modern books? (I recommend this site, particularly the section “Looking at Older Books,” for an overview of these differences.) What exactly is different, and how?
  5. Describe the categories of the book’s contents from beginning to end (e.g. title page; dedication(s) and/or address(es) to the reader; major divisions of its contents (e.g. prose/verse; titles of individual works; dividing markers; inserted title pages; illustrations or other images; lists of errors). Is there a table of contents? Is there anything unexpected or missing?
  6. Feel free to insert illustrations into your description. They aren’t necessary, but make a welcome clarification.

Part 2 (500 words)

In Part 2, you will contrast the book (from Part 1) with either a modern edition, or another book by the same printer.

Option A: Modern edition

John Leonard writes about the “editor’s responsibility to make difficult decisions” (liv). What decisions have modern editors of your chosen text made? Look at spelling, modernizations, punctuation, regularization (i.e. spelling words consistently), and capitalization. What are the effects of these decisions? How do the editions we’re reading compare to the books in which your text appeared in the seventeenth century? (If you have a different edition of Milton, it’s fine to use that one.)

Option B: Same printer

Find any other book printed by the same printer within a few (about five) years. Compare and contrast the two books’ forms and contents. Consider how the contents of the two books are different, and talk about those differences. Use any of the criteria in step 5 above, or any of the following: size (of pages), length, subjects, prefaces/dedications, illustrations, intended readership, typefaces, marginalia.

Here is a tutorial on how to find these other books.

My Expectations

Your main responsibility in this assignment is to describe one or more of EEBO’s reproductions of early modern printed books, and to compare them either to one another (option B in Part 2) or to the editions we’re reading in English 411 (option A).

The format of your writing can be as formal or as informal as you see fit; I’m more concerned with what than with how you write this assignment. Are you addressing the terms of the questions in both parts? Are you showing evidence that you’ve thought carefully about both the contents and forms of these books?

You need not do any secondary research, though of course it’s perfectly fine if you do. Whether you choose to present your work as a blog post or a printed essay, you don’t need footnotes or a Works Cited section — though again, feel free to include them if you want to.

On the prospect of blogging this assignment, see my guide to getting and posting a WordPress account with ucalgaryblogs.ca. (I wrote it for my English 203 students this term.) It includes this guidance on your writing style, which applies no matter what form you choose:

The language of your posts can be informal, yet they should follow the rules of English grammar and punctuation. (I have a whole section of my Effective Critical Writing guide on correct English.) Write as if you are speaking to a crowd, so it’s more formal than you would speak to a friend. “In any case, strive for thoughtfulness and nuance” (says Mark Sample).


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