Session: A database of prices in literary and non-literary sources.

I work with texts that present imaginative interpretations of economic principles and systems in 18th and 19th century England so, for example, Addison’s Vision of Public Credit, Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy and Queen Mab, and a variety of works by William Blake. But it can be very challenging to tease out these interpretations: sometimes they are obvious, and at other times, it’s very challenging to see one individual against the panorama of the rest — the poverty-stricken, the wealthy, and the millions in between.

My students have a similar problem. When I teach works like Jane Eyre, and Mansfield Park, I can almost guarantee that all the references to money will go straight over my students’ heads. And who can blame them for not understanding the significance of what someone’s annual income or salary? Even I find it difficult to keep straight in my head, not having lived in 19th-century England.

What I want to discuss, then, is a tool that I’m working to build: a website to collect data on prices listed in both literary and non-literary sources, arranged by region, chronology, and source. Ideally, a user would be able to search for a price, a source, a region, or a range of dates, and the result would be a list (or a visual representation) of the prices mentioned — from greatest to least expense, or vice-versa. Perhaps a student reading Jane Eyre, seeing that the tuition at the charity school where Jane is sent is 15 pounds per annum, would be curious about what else cost 15 pounds in 1847, or between 1847 and 1850.

Each entry would provide a quote with the relevant price data, but the quote would need to be minimal, in order to stay within the bounds of fair use. It would also provide bibliographic data, so that a user could seek out the original document.

Part of the beauty of this tool is that it could be useful to several disciplines: literature, history, economics. I’m also confident that it’s a tool that can be built by crowdsourcing — highly experienced scholars can contribute, but so can graduate students and undergraduates, with minimal training. In this regard, it would work in the same way that Open University’s Reading Experience Database works — by providing a form that users can fill out to submit data. Though I work with primarily 18th and 19th century English lit, I’d like to make this a database that could encompass a much larger time-span — say, from 1300-1965, and encompassing multiple countries. It will have to start small, but I want it to be able to grow.

Obviously, there are challenges. Getting a body of data, checking the accuracy of data as it is submitted by other users — developing the code to produce graphic representations of search results. They don’t have to be fancy, but I’d like them not to scream “this website was built in 1997!”, either. But I think the rewards could be very great. It will become possible to look at an author who writes about specific costs/income in his/her letters or diary, and see them in the context of a year, or a range of years. It will be possible to see mentions of price in Our Mutual Friend against a similar backdrop. I think that once I have a framework in place, and a body of data, it might be possible to approach electronic collections like ECCO and EEBO and see about using a data detector to extract price data from their sources. Or it might not.

What I’d like to hear from THATCamp participants is:

1) how this site could be useful as a resource to you, in terms of your own research, or teaching
2) ideas that you might have about specific sources, or groups of sources, that ought to be included (whether involving a specific author, or group of authors, or people)
3) challenges and potential problems that you think this resource might face. This way, I can think of solutions to overcome them.
4) questions, and anything else that you think might be relevant. If you also work with any sort of large scale quantitative data, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

Looking forward to seeing all of you — and thanks in advance!

Categories: thatcamppnw09 | Tags: |

1 Response to Session: A database of prices in literary and non-literary sources.

  1. jcmeloni says:

    Yep, I’m definitely seeing a session on workshopping ideas for new apps used in research and/or pedagogy.

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