Together, we can FrEEBO

It’s time to unlock the tools of research

John Overholt
Oct 29, 2015 · 3 min read
Unlock Locke!

An announcement yesterday sent shockwaves through Early Modern Twitter (yes, that’s a thing, and yes, it’s a big enough thing to have shockwaves). The Renaissance Society of America, an organization for scholars studying the period from 1300–1650, sent its members the following email:

For those outside the field, EEBO is an online database providing access to English books printed before 1700. EEBO grew out of an earlier project to microfilm such books, starting in the 1930s, when that was cutting edge technology. EEBO is those same microfilms, now digitized. The results, as you might expect, are not uniformly spectacular.

Be that as it may, EEBO is an extremely valuable resource, providing access to an impressively high percentage of all the surviving works from this period straight to your desktop. But that access comes at a high price — one that EEBO’s owner ProQuest (itself partially owned by noted scholarly publisher Goldman Sachs) keeps a closely guarded secret. It’s high enough, in any event, that only elite research universities can afford the hundreds of thousands of dollars in up-front costs and continuing subscription fees to provide this database to their faculty and students.

That’s why access to EEBO through membership in RSA is crucial to scholars who work at institutions without EEBO subscriptions. Without these books they can’t do their research. Without that research, .

After a lot of anger and pushback on Twitter about ProQuest cancelling RSA members’ access, that decision today seems to have been reversed, albeit that raises as many questions as it answers.

It seems to me, though, that we ought to take this as a wakeup call. There is literally no reason for these centuries-old books to be the monopoly of a commercial publisher who owns not a single one of them. It is entirely within the power of the libraries of Great Britain and the US to make this invaluable resource available to everyone in the world without a massive subscription fee or even a relatively more modest but still expensive society membership. These books are part of our cultural heritage, and it’s high time we made them available to everyone.

I work at a library (reminder: said library does not endorse this message) with a rich collection of these books, but far from all of them, nor do I have the budget to digitize them all myself. BUT, I can do a little. And so can my colleagues at other institutions. And together, we can replace EEBO, with high-quality digital scans that are free for everyone to use.

We’ll need some help — a lot of it. This will not happen overnight, and it’s a big, big project, so the first thing we need is a place to start. That’s why I’m calling on scholarly societies, like the RSA, but many others who have an interest in this time period, to give us your priorities — if you could only digitize one book from this period, which one would it be? And what about the one after that? We’ll need a place to compile those priorities, and a way for libraries to claim particular titles so we don’t duplicate efforts. I don’t know exactly how we can make this happen, but I couldn’t be more confident that we can make this happen. All we have to do is decide that we’re tired of the way things work now.

Who wants to help?

John Overholt

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Librarian, Cambridge, MA