The E-Text Center: An Electronic Treasure Trove For Teaching And Research
UVa Alumni News Article, Vol. 82, No. 2, Jan/Feb 1994; Page 17
David Seaman, a British medievalist turned computer whiz, can't hide his enthusiasm for the tools at his disposal. In a spacious room on the third floor of Alderman Library, where CDs and software have replaced the books on the old wooden shelves, he puts one of his machines through its paces.
He clicks on the mouse and instantly a page from the Old English manuscript for Beowulf appears on the wide-screen color monitor. With another click, a picture of the Wife of Bath pops up, taken from an illuminated manuscript of The Canterbury Tales. Finally, for good measure. he calls up a letter in Thomas Jefferson's own hand. All three images are on the screen at the same time, with searchable text alongside.
Mr. Seaman is coordinator of the University's Electronic Text Center, which gives students and faculty instant access to digitized texts, images and even sounds. In fact, they can tap this vast archive of electronic texts without leaving their offices or dorm rooms, provided they have a computer hooked into the University network. Since opening in the fall of 1992, the center has been hailed as a national model of how a library can make use of new technology.
How might a scholar take advantage of this electronic wizardry? Suppose a researcher wanted to trace the concept of the "academical village." A search through the Modern English Texts data base will lead to the Jefferson letter carrying his familiar quotation, "The whole of these [buildings] arranged around an open square of grass and trees, would make it, what it should be in fact, an academical village." Or suppose a student is looking for early references to St. Valentine's Day. A search of the on-line Oxford English Dictionary will go back to the year 1381 and a quotation from Chaucer's Parliament of Fowls, "For this was on seynt Volantynys day Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make."
Even before the E-Text Center was brought on line, Mr. Seaman was well acquainted with the use of computers in literary research. As a doctoral student in the English department, he applied computer-aided analysis to medieval romances. He also assisted John Kidd, now of Boston University, whose computer analysis of James Joyce's Ulysses helped to produce a definitive version of the text free of the errors and unauthorized changes that had crept into the novel's various editions.
Mr. Seaman credits associate librarian Kendon Stubbs with recognizing the need for the E-Text Center and shepherding its development. "In other universities, the battle is getting the library to understand this is something it needs to be doing," said Mr. Seaman. "We didn't have that battle because the library administration was already convinced."
From the outset, the center has supported teaching as well as research. For instance, a Shakespeare survey course combined electronic text, images and digitized sound from different productions of The Merchant of Venice; students in a first-year composition class used the center to obtain position papers from the Bush and Clinton campaigns; and a French professor has set up a language tutorial program for undergraduates. Students using these services are sure to happen onto other items that prove valuable.
"People go looking for something, and almost inevitably they come across works they wouldn't have thought of or works they hadn't heard of," said Mr. Seaman. "Going through these data bases, they often end up somewhere they didn't expect to be."