National Endowment for the Humanities supports digital project focused on 18th-century intellectual history

Long before iPhones, Twitter and text messages, 18th-century thinkers already were worried about information overload. How, they wondered, could anyone possibly keep up with the surfeit of new books and ideas making their way into the world?

Commonplace books—a kind of hybrid of an encyclopedia and a dictionary of quotations—were one way 18th-century thinkers answered this concern. Commonplace books gathered excerpts and quotations from many different works and organized them by subject, allowing readers to keep tabs on new thinkers and ideas. Many 18th-century writers incorporated these commonplaces into their own work, allowing them to be read and reused anew by other writers.

A pioneering new project at the University of Chicago and Oxford University, supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, will use data analysis techniques to develop a massive digital “commonplace book.” Identifying and analyzing these commonplaces will shed light on how knowledge spread and transformed in the early modern period, according to Robert Morrissey, one of the leaders of the “Commonplace Cultures” project.

Commonplace books were “a way of managing information that made texts, ideas, and words accessible,” explained Morrissey, the Benjamin Franklin Professor of Romance Languages and Literatures.

Studying commonplaces “allows you to understand how culture circulates, and how creation interacts with reuse—that reuse and creation are intertwined,” added Morrisey, director of ARTFL, the Project for American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language.

Last month, “Commonplace Cultures” received a “Digging Into Data” award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Now in its third year, “Digging Into Data” is an international effort to develop new insights, tools and skills in innovative humanities and social science research using large-scale data analysis.

The interdisciplinary team working on “Commonplace Cultures”—which includes 18th-century literary scholars Morrissey and Nicholas Cronk, digital humanities experts Mark Olsen and Glenn Roe, PhD’10, and computer scientists Ian Foster and Min Chen—will begin by assembling an enormous database of 18th-century texts from the Eighteenth Century Collections Online database, the HathiTrust public domain collection, and 34,000 titles from Oxford’s Bodleian Library.  

From there, the team will use a technique known as sequence alignment, which searches for similar strings of text, to identify commonplaces. The process will produce a digital database of commonplaces that will be freely available to scholars of literature and history worldwide. This assemblage of commonplaces will allow the team to study how ideas and citations emerged and circulated, and how 18th-century authors modified them.

In partnership with the University of Chicago’s Computation Institute and the Oxford e-Research Centre the team will develop visualization capabilities that will enable users to explore the relationships between different kinds of commonplace groupings (by authors, book, time periods, and language, etc.).

“Commonplace Cultures” builds on ARTFL’s long tradition of digital humanities research. Its database boasts a growing collection of digitized texts in multiple languages. The collaboration’s flagship project is a digitized version of philosopher Denis Diderot’s massive Encyclopédie. The ARTFL team also developed PhiloLogic, a powerful search engine designed for humanities research now used by researchers at institutions across the world.