Google and Access to the World's Intellectual Heritage

By Rapple, Brendan | Contemporary Review, June 2005 | Go to article overview

Google and Access to the World's Intellectual Heritage


Rapple, Brendan, Contemporary Review


I was recently researching the educational views of Vicesimus Knox (1752-1821), headmaster of Tonbridge School, Kent, for thirty-four years. My knowledge of Knox was relatively scant though I knew that his views on liberal education and on the education of females were advanced. Knox was a prolific writer and while his principal educational work was Liberal Education: Or, A Practical Treatise on the Methods of Acquiring Useful and Polite Learning (1781), I realised that his educational views were probably scattered throughout his writings. Less than a year ago my research would have required a laborious and tedious consultation of the multiple microfilm editions of Knox's works owned by my library. Fortunately, however, this library recently purchased Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) a database that aims to include the digital full-text of all significant English-language and foreign-language titles printed in Great Britain during the eighteenth century, together with numerous important works from the Americas. The resource, when complete, will contain the fully searchable text of over 33 million pages from almost 150,000 titles including all the works, as well as variant editions, of Fielding, Burke, Pope, Paine, Franklin, Swift. The titles are based on the authoritative English Short Title Catalogue bibliography, the originals coming from the British Library and other libraries. ECCO's searching capabilities are sophisticated. One may search by precise keywords or phrases, specifying that one wishes to search full text, author, title, date, general subject area and more. The books' pages are presented as digital facsimiles or actual images and from the results list and page view one may link directly to different portions of the work, such as the title page, back-of-book index, list of illustrations, an e-Table of Contents.

My search of ECCO with Vicesimus Knox as author retrieved 69 texts, including a number of different editions of his 1781 Liberal Education. I then performed an advanced search seeking any text with Knox as author that contained the words 'school' or 'learning' or 'education' anywhere in the work. I also limited these results to any text containing the word 'girl' or 'girls' or 'female' or 'females' or 'woman' or 'women' or 'lady' or 'ladies'. This was much more efficient and productive than browsing through reel upon reel of cumbersome microfilm, though I was still required to do that for Knox's post-1800 works that I did not have available in print. Before leaving the ECCO database I easily located the full-text in digital page image of numerous other eighteenth-century treatises on female education, for example Charles Allen's 1760 The Polite Lady: Or a Course of Female Education; the Rev. John Bennett's 1787 Strictures on Female Education; Mrs. H. Cartwright's 1777 Letters on Female Education, Addressed to a Married Lady; John Moir's 1784 Female Tuition: Or an Address to Mothers, on the Education of Daughters; John Rice's 1779 A Plan of Female Education; Dublin's Foundling Hospital's 1800 Rules for Conducting the Education of the Female Children in the Foundling Hospital.

I found the ECCO database so powerful and fascinating that I turned my attention to topics other than female education. It was engrossing to browse through the images of the numerous eighteenth-century editions of Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and I was particularly captivated by the variety and artistic merit of the copious illustrations and the numerous maps delineating Crusoe's voyages. I also came across four editions of Crusoe in French. While most of ECCO's 150,000 texts are in English, 443 works are in Welsh, 18 in Dutch, 4322 in French, 76 in German, 429 in Italian, 3712 in Latin, and 45 in Spanish. I was also delighted to access so readily the works of the Edinburgh physician William Cullen and discover his views on nosology, i.e. on the 'systematic arrangement of diseases by classes, orders, genera, and species'. …

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