Early English Books Hackfest


On 9 March 2015, the Bodleian Libraries welcomed some 40 eager ‘hackers’ to the Early English Books Hackfest, organized to celebrate the release of more than 25,000 texts from the Early English Books Online-Text Creation Partnership (EEBO-TCP) project into the public domain. Attendees were invited to demonstrate innovative and creative approaches either to the full dataset or a number of subsets (relating to alchemy, drama and seventeenth-century newsbooks) provided by project staff, and to apply imaginative methodologies to text or subject matter which might include an element of ‘surprise’.  The main event took place in the Weston Library’s Blackwell Hall which, only days away from the public opening of the new Library, was a hive of activity with last-minute preparations, which lent proceedings a welcome air of informality.

The day began in the Lecture Theatre with a welcome from Kathryn Eccles, the University’s Digital Humanities Champion, and introductory talks from Michael Popham and Judith Siefring of the Bodleian Digital Library. Filing back into Blackwell Hall, coffee was swiftly followed by a ‘speed dating’ exercise, orchestrated with charm and calm authority by the event’s em-cee, Liz McCarthy of Bodleian Communications. This provided an opportunity for people to pitch ideas and find collaborators, firm up projects and groups, and request (or indeed recruit) technical help as necessary. Groups settled at a number of tables and proceeded to work furiously on their respective ideas for the next four hours or so, pausing only to sample the delicious spread laid on by Paul Burrows and his team from Tailor-Made Top Nosh.  Meanwhile, EEBO-TCP staff past and present ‘hovered’, providing project expertise and technical know-how as required.  At 4pm, everybody decamped to the Lecture Theatre where representatives from each group presented their work.


Projects included: a visualization of the relative frequency of rainbow colours in the full dataset; an analysis of the structural features of a newly-created subset of fictional works; comparison of page layouts and text types in the alchemy subset; an examination of the ratio of Latinate and Germanic words used in the full dataset; a tool which facilitates word-searching according to location on a given page; mapping pre-1666 bookstalls in Paul’s Cross Churchyard in London to determine which EEBO-TCP titles were for sale by different booksellers in the area over time; the application of a semantic alignment and linking tool which asserts whether or not different terms are related; an evaluation exercise to identify an ideal public (as opposed to academic) interface for EEBO-TCP; and the creation of a narrative interactive game in which the user’s responses to the questions posed and the evidence given in the transcript of a real-life witch’s trial determines whether the accused is acquitted or burnt at the stake.

Back in Blackwell Hall, a drinks reception saw Bodley’s Librarian Richard Ovenden bravely defy the ‘flu and distribute cash prizes to winners and copies of the Marks of Genius catalogue to runners-up.  Further cash prizes have since been awarded to entrants in the EEBO-TCP Ideas Hack* which ran until Easter, a competition open to all, whether or not they could attend the Hackfest itself.

Feedback from the Hackfest has been extremely positive, and might best be summed up by Sarah Cole of TIME/IMAGE, who attended the event and created the marvellous witches game described above: “All in all, a great day with some really interesting outputs. I hope to see more HackFests from the Bodleian in the future.

—David Tomkins

* Postscript: The Ideas Hack competition has closed. The standard of entries was extremely high, and prizes were awarded as follows:

1st place (£250): ‘The Posthumous HAK – Purchas his Pilgrimes (1625) and the East India Company‘, submitted by Robert Bachelor, with Murray Ruffner, Brandon Sharpe, Colin Hancock, Keimora Ellison and Raven Williams.

2nd place (£150): ‘If Music be the food of Loue – Sonifying Drama‘, submitted by Iain Emsley.

3rd place (£50): ‘EEBO-TCP Phase I – From Open Access to Accessible and Open‘, submitted by Sjoerd Levelt.


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