As Tim Sherman reminds us in his 2015 piece “Seams and edges: Dreams of aggregation, access & discovery in a broken world,” “our online services are themselves constructed” (). As users, we sometimes forget about the considerable and exhaustive effort that goes into creating databases and the metadata types available for searching. However, when they created Wright American Fiction 1851-1875 online, based on Lyle H. Wright’s impressive bibliography, its creators certainly kept users in mind.
On the site’s welcome page, users are reminded that “most of the authors contained in the bibliography are little known. This period – a momentous one in American history – provides the foundation for later American literature, and this digital collection of 2,887 titles allows insight into American literature, culture, and history otherwise unattainable..” That Wright American Fiction allows users to explore lesser-known writers and American culture during this period through thus extensive collection is no small accomplishment. Certainly, Lyle H, Wright would be very pleased to see this digital version of one of his bibliographies. The site also notes the use of the database for “data mining and textual analysis,” adding even more value to the endeavor.
Exploring the metadata in the database, one can see that the database’s creators kept needs of literary scholars and publishing historians in mind.
On the top left-hand side of the screen, users see a Search option and a Browse Option by Author, Title, and Year. The Search option allows for Boolean searching using a drop-down menu with options for keyword, author, title, and publisher. It provides the ability to search by date. For its ability to search in these ways, especially by publisher, Wright American Fiction provides an immense service to book historians, especially publishing historians.
Through the publishing search option, it is possible to recreate a publisher’s fiction imprint list and sort it by year.
In image mode, it is possible to see the typography of the title pages and the imprint information, as well as the images within the texts.
The date range search allows for searching a specific keyword by date, noting how authors and publishers were tackling or avoiding topics such as slavery or Bloomers.
After doing a keyword search of “Bloomers,” for example, it is possible to sort the items by Relevance, Author, Title, and Publication Year. By utilizing the Publication Year option, Wright American Fiction users are able to see the positive and negative takes that authors had on clothing reform over time. If there were sort by gender and/or author birth options, it would be fascinating to be able to see what individuals of different genders and generations were thinking on this topic.
Tim Hitchcock notes in “Digital Searching and the Re-formulation of History and Knowledge” by being able to search information about people and things at a more micro level, in databases, the individual becomes more important than ever before (90), changing the narrative of history. Wright’s American Fiction’s metadata allows users to explore issues such as clothing reform through the words of authors, people who were both models of and models for the people of the cultures they inhabited . Additional metadata options would allow for even more sophisticated investigations into these works, and they would provide windows into those who produced, distributed, and consumed the objects.
What is missing through the metadata and the database itself is the ability to query or view the various formats and binding options for the products over time. The time and expense of adding these options to Wright American Fiction would be astronomical,. Similarly, adding the various manuscript stages of the books, such as Ken Price and his team have done with The Whitman Archive, and others at Princeton have done with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby would be more than one project could consider, even with funding from NEH and other agencies. However, the opportunity to search metadata for additional material would enrich Wright American Fiction
In addition to including the option to searching by formats and bindings, adding costs of various editions of books as a search option would have been very helpful. By utilizing Orville Roorbach’s Bibliotheca Americana, various newspaper and periodical reviews, and other resources, such as the American Antiquarian Society’s catalog, I was able to reconstruct the imprint lists of several Antebellum publishers. I included formats, bindings, and costs, because i considered them to be crucial search terms.
Perhaps Google Books, Haithi Trust, and other sites that provide scanned images of the bindings, can provide some of this missing information.
Overall, Wright’s American Fiction is a gift to the literary history community and the public, providing metadata that allows for many searches.
Hitchcock, Tim. “Digital Searching and the Re-formulation of History and Knowledge”
Sherman, Tim. “Seams and EdgesDreams of aggregation, access & discovery in a broken world,