Category Archives: ESTC

1748: ‘Fiction’ in the Database:

Not so long ago I was reviewing a lecture I regularly present to students studying Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. Looking back, I had no idea that this would lead me to speculate about how bibliographic data relating to English literary history is recorded in electronic databases.

It was a lecture that aimed to give some context about the ‘rise of the novel’ and I always had fun by reminding them just how illegitimate the novel was in the first half of the eighteenth century, and how even literary works formed a tiny proportion of what was published. But this time around, I thought I would actually present them with evidence. Some actual quantities. I came up with the idea of homing in on the year Clarissa was first published: 1748. My first attempt was quick and dirty.


Using the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) I typed in the year 1748, left everything else blank, and noted how many publications it returned (2550). I then thought it would be instructive to see how many of these were literary (in the loosest sense), so I went to Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO) and narrowed the 1748 search down via their category ‘Literature and Language’ (c.250 hits).[1] Now to find how many of those were novels. Both databases yielded results with the subject ‘fiction’ and I then – to ram home the point – narrowed that list down to new titles published that year. Only 0.5% of all works produced in 1748 could be classified as new fiction.[2] In a culture which perceives imaginative writing as practically synonymous with the novel, the result was a gratifying gasp of surprise from my student audience.

However, this rough-and-ready exercise set me on a different path, and made me think about how these databases, upon which we rely so trustingly, categorise our literary heritage. The simple exercise above revealed clear disparities between these databases in both the numbers and the titles returned, and some odd things about the way ESTC and ECCO had tagged these works. For a detailed breakdown of tags and titles I found, see my spread-sheet here.

A quick bit of history. The page images available in ECCO are digital scans of microfilm photographs of the original physical copies; in other words, as Ben Pauley has pointedly remarked, a remediation of a remediation.[3] The original microfilming was contracted out by the British Library in the mid- to late-twentieth century. These were then purchased and sold to research libraries by a US company called ‘Research Publications’ (I have a sudden flash of memory from my postgraduate days, seeing that name on the microfilm boxes as I painstakingly loaded a film into the reader). In the 1990s that company was then bought by Gale.[4] By 2002 the microfilms had been scanned and ECCO was launched as commercial database in 2003. A second tranche of material (ECCO Part II) was published in 2009.

ECCO got its bibliographic meta-data (for example, details about printers, publishing history, physical description, holding libraries) from the ESTC. However, the ESTC itself has a tangled history. It began life as the Eighteenth-century Short Title Catalogue in 1977. In 1987 it extended its remit to include material from c.1472 to 1700 (incorporating data from the Short Title catalogue of books printed in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and of English books printed abroad, 14751640 and the Wing catalogue which covered the period 1641-1700), and was then renamed the English Short Title Catalogue.[5] Indeed, the precise relationship between ECCO and the palimpsest that is the ESTC is an obscure one, echoing (if you’ll forgive the pun) that between Pro-Quest’s database Early English Books Online, the ESTC and the Short Title Catalogue, as Bonnie Mak has elegantly pointed out.[6]

When it comes to the question of how subject headings were assigned, there are few hard facts. However, Gale-Cengage gives some clues about this metadata on their website FAQs. At some point around 2009, just before the second tranche of digitized texts were published, the MARC (Machine Readable Catalogue) records for ECCO were ‘enhanced’ by adding Library of Congress (LoC) subject headings.[7] These were obtained from ‘existing’ library records which held the physical copy. However, where this was not possible, ‘ESTC licensed the work of adding LoC headings.’ This process resulted in ‘[o]ver 274,000 subject headings’ being added; Gale notes that these ‘were added through the combination of harvesting and manual assignment.’[8]

It seems there was at least considerable potential for divergence between these two systems of gathering and assigning subject headings, driven as they were by different organisations and groups of people. This might well have led to the bibliographers or cataloguers at Gale to adopt a different way of tagging and searching for subject headings.

Returning to the oddities I encountered in preparing my lecture: ESTC enables a search via ‘Subject (genre)’ and ‘Subject;’ ECCO has a drop-down option for ‘Subject.’ However, while ESTC tagged the genre field with ‘novel’ or ‘fiction’ and its subject field ‘fiction’, ECCO tagged the subject fields as ‘fiction’ and/or ‘English fiction’ (note the ‘and/or’ for further confusion). In all, this yields five different sets of results. Moreover, just looking at the widest set of results for the subject heading of ‘fiction’ (including reprints and new editions), the most striking aspect was the far larger number of results returned by the ESTC than by ECCO. There are no instances where ECCO identifies a work as ‘fiction’ that the ESTC does not. Even when ECCO tags A spy on Mother Midnight: or, the Templar Metamorphos’d as ‘fiction’ and the ESTC does not, the ESTC nevertheless tags it as ‘novels.’ However, there are some notable instances where ECCO does not follow the ESTC’s lead.[9] For example, where the ESTC rightly categorises Henry Carey’s Cupid and Hymen: a voyage to the isles of love and matrimony as ‘fiction’ it is not listed as such in ECCO. Even more obviously missing as ‘fiction’ in ECCO is Henry Fielding’s canonical novel The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews! Conversely, someone at ECCO must have thought tagging Ovid’s Heroides. English Ovid’s epistles … Translated into English verse as ‘fiction’ – as did the ESTC – was, at best, misleading.

Perhaps this goes beyond the issue of the management of data? It is intriguing to speculate on the human intelligence behind the original LoC headings and how they were assigned. Are we talking about individuals who were re-interpreting the nature of the actual texts themselves? How else to account for some of these idiosyncrasies?

Let’s go back to Fielding’s The History of the Adventures of Joseph Andrews (first pub. 1742; 4th ed. 1748) which is tagged by the ESTC as ‘Tobacco-fiction,’ a subject heading that is at least consistent across the ESTC and ECCO. But this is assigned to just three texts in the whole catalogue; the other two are novels by Tobias Smollett: The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle (1751) and The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1773). Now, it’s true that there are people who smoke in these novels; but there are plenty of other protagonists from the fiction of the period who smoke too and it’s not as if tobacco is a significant plot-device. To take one more example, the anonymous Suite des lettres d’une Peruvienne. Again the subject heading is consistent across the two databases: ‘Epistolary fiction, French-18th century;’ but it is the only title from the entire database that is associated with this subject heading.

More interesting still is what happens to the two variants of Nehemiah How’s A narrative of the captivity of Nehemiah How. For the first on my list (ESTC Number W014008) ECCO seems to agree with its status as fictional, although its ESTC category ‘novels’ has been changed to the less contentious ‘fiction.’ Was someone working for Gale more astute in their reading of eighteenth-century narrative form? Human interpretation in the database is also evident when it comes to the other variant (ESTC number W34168), which looks to have been added later since it appears in ECCO Part II. Notably any tags formally declaring its fictionality have gone: in the ESTC it is replaced with the more precise genre tag of ‘captivity narrative.’ However, in the ECCO even this slight hint of narrative is ignored, and instead opts to follow ESTC’s more historical-sounding subject tag of ‘Indian captivities.’

More anomalies could be found (help yourself!) but these few examples are intriguing. How this metadata has been assigned seems to have been the result of a tangled history of cataloguing and bibliography, machines and human agency, and the messy process of translation between academic projects and commercial digital publishing. It’s a warning – just in case we need another – about how we use the meta-data available to us via resources like ECCO, EEBO and the ESTC. While invaluable, careful use also requires knowledge about the historical processes behind the creation of these databases. We might also say that human database bibliographers faced the same problems of interpreting and categorising the eighteenth-century novel as literary scholars do, and as critics in the eighteenth century clearly did. So one more thing: it’s easy to forget that behind the search interface on your computer screen, that black box of the database, what we are looking at is evidence everywhere of human intelligence, diligence, error, and above all, interpretation.



[1] Characteristically, ECCO returns slightly different numbers even when the same search is repeated. See Joseph Dane, What is a Book? The Study of Early Printed Books (University of Notre Dame Press, 2012), pp.224-7.

[2] In this essay I make no claim for a comprehensive list of fiction published in 1748 or even to define what fiction is or was. For example, Jerry Beasley’s Check List of Prose Fiction Published in England 1740-1749 (University Press Virginia, 1972), might also be a good place to start. But would we want to include, for example, chapbooks as fiction? Quite possibly, but neither Beasley’s checklist nor ECCO includes them, and the ESTC’s coverage of this genre is unclear.

[3] Thanks to Ben Pauley; also to Scott Gibbons, Giles Bergel, and Elizabeth Grumbach for helpful conversations.

[4] See Laura Mandell, ‘The Business of Digital Humanities: Capitalism and Enlightenment’, Scholarly and Research Communication, 6.4 (2015).


[6] Bonnie Mak, ‘Archeology of a Digitization.’ Pre-print, pp.10-11.

[7] For the Library of Congress subject headings and genre terms see


[9] As well as a number of texts which do not exist in ECCO at all.

What is a novel in the eighteenth century? Some numbers …

Some of my undergradutes playing with data…

Digital Literary Studies

Students Ben Franks and Alice Creswell share their charts on some keyword searches conducted via the the ‘Genre’ filter in ESTC across 1660-1799. The first chart breaks down the 2,880 hits from the genre term ‘Fiction’ into various title keywords:

Fiction Fiction

This second pie-chart breaks down the 1,434 hits from the search term ‘Novels’:

Novels Novels

We wondered about the ways in which the ESTC catalogue had tagged these genres and the exent to which they overlapped (meta-metadata questions?). But these results were given additional context and meaning by setting them against the same keyword searches on Google’s N-Gram viewer and some more granulated searches of the metadata of the 1,000 novels in the Early Novels Database.

Ben and Alice’s favourite titles? The Devil Turn’d Hermit (check that full title!) and Adventures of a Bank-Note.

View original post