|Computers & Texts No. 15
University of Oxford
As recently as five years ago it behoved anyone embarking on research in English studies to possess a certain amount of strength. This is not a metaphor for the loneliness of the solitary researcher, but a literal statement. It is almost impossible to do literary research without consulting a bibliography, and to do this the hapless researcher had inevitably to be prepared for an exercise in weight-lifting as they struggled to lift quantities of heavy volumes from shelf to table and back again. Even once this arduous task had been performed, the process of searching, especially for areas of study as opposed to single authors, or even worse, across interdisciplinary fields, was long, tedious, and to some extent always a hopeful process fraught with error and omission.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the bibliography has proved to be an ideal candidate for electronic publication. The risk of computer-induced Repetitive Strain Injury apart, the searching process on a CD-ROM or the World Wide Web is so much quicker and more convenient, and the researcher can be far more confident of comprehensive discovery of resources in her given area of interest, and across disciplinary boundaries, than with traditional search methods.
But this is, in a sense, old news. Even the most paper-friendly of English scholars are being seduced by the attraction of electronic resources such as the MLA Online Bibliography or ABELL, which has been included in Chadwyck-Healey's Literature Online site. So I approached the task of reviewing the Swets and Zeitlinger Annotated Bibliography for English Studies (ABES) with some scepticism. Does English Studies really need another bibliography?
The design of the ABES case is understated, and tasteful in pale blue and white, and perhaps, therefore, they would be horrified by the brash commercialism of the suggestion I am about to make. However, I feel that somewhere on the cover and the opening screen of the CD-ROM there should be prominently displayed the following type of slogan 'NOT JUST ANOTHER BIBLIOGRAPHY'.
I suggest this, because it took me a considerable amount of time to discover just what makes ABES uniquely useful and interesting to the English literary researcher. Tucked away in the help file (which a competent computer user often ignores), I found the intriguing title 'Editorial Policy and a Little History'. (I subsequently found an update of it on their Web site at http://www.swets.nl/sps/journals/abes/scope.html, but this URL was not displayed on the packaging.) This document explains that ABES might more correctly be described by the term more familiar from monographs: the 'Select Bibliography'. It is in this selectivity, I would suggest, that its unique value lies. The CD-ROM is the result of the collaboration of literary scholars worldwide, all acknowledged experts in their respective fields, who have submitted reviews of the hundred books in their area of research which they consider to be most valuable. In addition, these lists will be updated annually and revised as new material is published. It is hardly surprising that although the product has initially been released as a CD-ROM it will, from autumn 1997, be updated monthly on the Web.
The value and unusual nature of this enterprise might not be apparent, and indeed, Swets seem unusually coy, for a commercial company, about the uniqueness and value of their product. However, anyone who knows the field of English Studies, in which some scholars protect their knowledge and research with almost febrile tenacity and scorn even the idea of collaboration, cannot fail to be impressed by the achievement that ABES represents. What the ABES editorial team have managed to do is to persuade literary scholars to share their expertise with others and also to be held responsible for their judgements, as each review is attributed to its author.
This indicates the unique capacity of the electronic medium to act as a force towards collaboration and synthesis in literary research. It is possible to find out what a given author's field is, and to view their list of reviews, simply by searching under the code name of the reviewer. While this sort of declaration of authorship may lead to a certain amount of mean-spirited quibbling by rivals in a given field, it is surely uniquely valuable. It would have proved nearly impossible for a researcher in the pre-electronic publication age, whether expert or not, to contact a collection of academics working in a given area and demand of them a detailed list of valuable texts. The academics would, no doubt, have found this a time-consuming intrusion and interruption to their work. Yet here we find the work done for us, and available for searching. The combined reviews provide the literary researcher with an extensive and impressive database. It is not comprehensive, but this is a matter of policy not accident.
The CD's search functionality is also impressive. As well as being able to carry out the type of searches common to other electronic databases - on keywords, author, historical period, language, and title - there are also searchable primary and secondary indices, which include key subjects of the text. As the name suggests, the secondary index contains those deemed to be less common or relevant. These choices may always be open to debate, but as with MARC records, this designation must surely be of use as long as we accept that the choice must always be, to an extent, subjective. It is also possible to combine search fields to construct complex queries.
Results are displayed in a concise listed form, and can be tagged for relevance. The record can then be expanded and viewed in detail, together with a review of the text , which may be up to about 250 words in length. It is also possible to specify which fields of the full record you are interested in, and to produce a 'customised' display of your search results, which can then be bookmarked, or the search profile saved. Individual records can also be printed.
One of the most valuable features of the software is that all words in the records are indexed, so by double clicking on a word it is possible automatically to generate a query which will list all other occurrences of that word in the database. This facilitates the kind of serendipity that may lead to an entirely unexpected, but nevertheless valuable, discovery. Deliberate hypertext linking of words is not new, of course, but links introduced editorially must always imply limits, imposed by what the reader is assumed to want to know. The ABES software allows us free choice to browse amongst the records, in the way we might a library stack. It will also help established scholars to keep up with the latest publications in their area, at a time when increasing pressure on time means that opportunities for browsing bookshops or even book reviews have almost disappeared.
Fig. 1 Viewing a selection of annotated references with ABES.
ABES is a welcome addition to the literary scholar's electronic toolkit. As a collection of the knowledge of literary researchers world-wide it presents us with a unique resource, created, in many ways by academics for academics. It should appeal to the inexpert researcher keen to discover more about a new field (an especially helpful function is the 'level' field which indicates whether the text is introductory or highly specialised) as well as the established scholar, keen to keep up with developments in her field. The ABES editorial team have tried to create a guide through of the ever increasing morass of literary information overload, and it seems, have made a very encouraging start.
Swets and Zeitlinger have recently announced that the ABES retrieval software will be further upgraded in the October edition, and that an online version will be announced later this year. More information can be obtained from the Swets Web site at http://www.swets.nl/sps/journals/abes/
[Table of Contents] [Letter to the Editor]
Computers & Texts 15 (1997), p.21 Not to be republished in any form
without the author's permission.
HTML Author: Sarah Porter
Document Created: 9 September 1997
Document Modified: 21 October 1999
The URL of this document is http://info.ox.ac.uk/ctitext/publish/comtxt/ct15/warwick.html