No Fancy Name
Tuesday, February 07, 2006
when technology collides with literature and history
Before I write the post about the Reveal Firefox extension, I wanted to describe the research project I worked on, the one in which Reveal proved useful. I tried to fit this description into the post about Reveal, but it ended up being a long digression about the Transcendentalists and that just wouldn't do for a quasi-technical kind of thing.

I built a little research database and interface for one of my profs. Her project was this: Notes of Conversations: 1848-1875 by A. Bronson Alcott, edited with glossary, preface, and introduction by [my prof]. Essentially, some of the transcriptions of Alcott's conversations were in the Houghton Library, some were still in the Concord library, some are culled from publications, and my prof pulled them together and wrapped a preface, introduction, and glossary around them. The database and interface was built to manage the glossary part of it.

Her publishers wanted biographical information for every speaker, attendee, and person mentioned in any of these conversations, as well as entries for places and things. Since it's a cross-discipline kind of book, it's a valid assumption that not everyone can immediately flip through the encyclopedia in their brains and come up with an entry on James Pierrepont Greaves like they can for Charles Darwin. Fair enough. [When I wrote the entry for Darwin I said, "you know, I can go on and on about Darwin since he's, you know, DARWIN" but we decided not to write extensive entries on people like Darwin because, as my prof said, "we're not all morons." True, true. That is why the entry for Darwin is only three or four lines while the entry for "Miss Bacon" is considerably longer.]

The database consists of a table for people, a table for places and things (aka "non-people" like Sod-republicanism or the wet sheet process, but also gods such as Apollo), and notes tables. My prof would add a record for a person/place/thing and I'd start researching and write an entry. The notes tables are for discussion back and forth between us, like "do you have any idea who [name] could be?" or, in the case of Samuel Johnson, she'd say "the famous one" or for Raphael, "painter, not angel" and I'd just go from there.

The interface included timestamps of when the bio/description was updated as well as timestamps for the notes. This way, she could see when notes were updated and could just go in and answer the questions, or she could see that an entry was updated and could "approve" the entry. I had a toggle switch for complete vs incomplete entries, so she could go in and mark things that were complete and needed no more work done on them. If this application had been used by more than just my prof and myself, I would have added a login/account layer to it so that changes and notes were attached to specific users, such as a third research assistant. But we didn't need that, just the two of us, because it was really clear who was talking to whom.

I also put in a read-only display, which she then simply highlighted, copied, and pasted into her manuscript document. The 222 people and 27 places/things ended up being approximately 60 pages when pasted into Word, and it looked really swell! I can't wait to see it in print.

When compiling the glossary entries, I typically had seven or more browser tabs open at one time, such as: my application, the American National Biography search interface, the Biography Resource Center interface, Google, Wikipedia, the Mormon's, and Before you all jump on me about Wikipedia, let me say this: I used it for date-checking and related links, which I would then comb through and validate/verify before I said anything concrete about a person. But really, the vast majority of people/places/things weren't in Wikipedia so it wasn't an issue. The Biography Resource Center was the most useful, followed closely by because I ended up going through a lot of census data and vital records if not to find people then to weed them out. For instance, a lot of the young ladies who attended conversations—especially the ones involving Margaret Fuller—were simply identified as "Miss Dana" or "Miss Cotton" or "Miss Burleigh" and really, it doesn't narrow it down much when you know there were 85 or so unmarried Cotton women of the correct age range in Massachusetts and Connecticut in 1850. So, I ended up with several entries like this:
Lidian Emerson had many connections to the Cotton family, and the Misses Cotton in attendance could have been any of her cousins. Lidian's mother was Lucy Cotton, daughter of John Cotton and Hannah Sturtevant Cotton; Lidian's paternal aunt, Priscilla Jackson, married Rossiter Cotton, also of this Cotton line. Thus, possible female descendants from the Cotton family abound, but these particular Misses Cotton cannot be specifically identified.
Not nearly as fun as the entry for "Miss Bacon," which I believe is our mutual favorite:
Probably Delia Bacon (1811-1859); American teacher and author; born in Tallmadge, OH; attended Catharine E. Beecher's school for girls; worked as a teacher for several years before attempting to establish her own school (which failed); turned to writing, producing Tales of the Puritans (1831) and The Bride of Fort Edward (1839); lectured on literary and historical topics. Notably, Bacon theorized that the works attributed to Shakespeare were written by a number of different authors including Francis Bacon, Edmund Spenser, and Sir Walter Raleigh. With encouragement from Ralph Waldo Emerson, Bacon traveled to England in 1853 to seek proof for her theories. Her theories and findings were published in The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (1857). However, her devotion to her theories "had thrown her off her balance," according to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and she went insane shortly after the publication of her book.
Sometime soon I'll link up the conversation titles/dates/locations with their attendees and speakers, and we'll make the linked glossary accessible to all, probably after the editor at the press makes changes or wants us to add people/places/things.

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