Some Caveats

Our effort to understand Victorian books through a series of graphs about publication titles may lead new vistors to the site to mistakenly believe that we are uncritical quantifiers. But we are professional historians who treasure nuance and sophisticated interpretation, so we want to be explicit about some of our concerns about the limitations of our data and methodologies.

First, we are well aware that the meaning of words change over time, as does word choice. “Science,” for instance, starts the long nineteenth century as an expansive term not so far from “knowledge,” but ends the era with a more narrow focus on the natural sciences. “Evil” might be a theme of Victorian thought but not necessarily the term most frequently used by authors when they discuss the subject.

Second, different ways of viewing our raw data will present different biases. The first study we ran was solely about word use in titles; undoubtedly we’ll get different charts when we run the same terms against the full texts of the same books. Furthermore, we plan to acquire the context around words (what Google calls “snippets”), which will allow for a much more fine-grained analysis, helping to determine whether a word was used in a positive or negative sense. We also recognize that artifacts of publishing shape the charts, and therefore limit the extent to which they can be representative of larger cultural interests.

Finally, we want to emphasize that the methods explored here will complement, rather than replace, close reading. It does not pretend to be a substitute for understanding the nuances of meaning that humanists enjoy. But it does present a new way of looking at the data and suggests some new questions. Indeed, we have already made some unexpected connections between the bird’s eye view of title data, texts of specific books, and the historical context from which they came.

We hope you will take a similarly cautious view of the contents of this site, but also share our enthusiasm for its promise. And of course we welcome and encourage your comments and criticisms.

Posted in about | 7 Comments

Keyword suggestions

We’re always on the lookout for interesting and useful words to search for in titles and texts. What suggestions to do you have? Please reply to this post to add your suggestions and we’ll try to get data for them. Besides our original list, additional suggestions include the following:

middle age
middle years

Posted in words | 33 Comments

Open Access Data

In celebration of open access week, and because we would do it anyway, we’re making all of our raw data available here for consultation. We of course have our own ideas about how to represent and how to make sense of the data, but we’re always interested in other ideas as to what should be done with it. What other data do we need? If you have suggestions for particular words you’d like to know about, please post them.


Posted in data | 2 Comments