Friday, October 5, 2012

Opening the IISTC

“Opening the IISTC: An End-User’s Approach to an Essential Database.” Digital Medievalist 1 (2005),

(Continuing an occasional series, this would be "The Third Article I Ever Published," in case anyone ever wonders where it came from.)

A decade ago, in early 2002, as I was working on my dissertation on the Nuremberg Chronicle of Hartmann Schedel, a very helpful librarian at the University of Illinois pointed me towards the ISTC, at that time available as the Illustrated Incunable Short Title Catalog on CD-ROM. It was fantastic - I could look up every known fifteenth-century printed book, and have all its bibliographic information instantly available. Even more important, it offered a list of all known locations where a copy could be found. I had the impression that there were a lot of copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle around, but the IISTC confirmed it, although there wasn't an easy way to compare the number of copies with other incunables.

The same librarian who had pointed me towards the IISTC also referred me to Paul Needham's extensive review article: "Counting Incunables: The IISTC CD-ROM," Huntington Library Quarterly 61 (1999): 457-529. The article not only compared the IISTC to its predecessors since Hain, but also pointed out a number of serious problems with the IISTC and limitations due to its implementation.

I had an idea. I knew that the IISTC made it possible to export records. What if you exported all the records as plain text? For my dissertation research, I had created an Access database to keep track of all the annotations in various copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle that I had examined. Shouldn't there be a way to turn the IISTC into an Access database and get around the limitations of its interface?

There was, but it involved some heavy data manipulation. I learned some rudimentary Perl so I could write scripts to turn the ISTC records into tab-delimited text files for easy import into Access. I also wrote scripts to add up the number of copies, as the ISTC didn't provide copy counts. It took a few months, but I've been making use of the results ever since.

I wrote to Paul Needham to let him know what I had done. He was interested. We exchanged e-mails. We discussed article ideas. And then - it turned out we weren't ready to put anything together yet. I had a method for turning the ISTC into a data source, but I didn't know what to do with it. Eventually I saw a CFP from a new journal, Digital Medievalist. I didn't know of anywhere else that would be interested in Perl scripts written by medievalists, so I submitted the paper in order to establish the method and suggest some ways it might have some significant uses, and it was accepted for publication. It's the one article I have in an open-access online journal, and the only one that lists source code in the appendix.

I imagined that would be the end of my foray into digital methods until 2008, when Paul Needham pointed out some recent work on early book survival rates. The methods of that one-off article I had published in 2005 turned out to be one of the three essential elements, along with understanding of fifteenth-century printing and statistical acumen, in what would become the article I published with Paul Needham and Frank McIntyre in 2010 on incunable survival rates. You never know when research dead ends will lead in new directions.

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