Have we reached 27,500 yet?

With the breakdown of the political order and the outbreak of civil war in England in 1640, the mechanisms of print publication censorship ceased to exist. What had once been a vigilant system of control gave way to an explosion of unlicensed printing. Over the next twenty years, historians estimate 27,500 books, pamphlets, newsbooks, and the like were printed.

With content no longer being so tightly controlled, what made stationers–the printers, publishers, and booksellers–decide what to produce and sell?  Were their motives entirely capitalistic? Or were they guided more by political and religious ideology? Were they based on relationships? Or was it a combination of all three?

Having recently helped plan and run a data and the digital humanities weeklong workshop, I decided to take advantage of the relative lull in activity summer in Grinnell affords to use the methods we explored during this workshop and see if I could answer any of these questions.

I started with the bibliography of printed publications that grew out of my languishing book manuscript. By no means was it exhaustive of the period, but it gave me a good list of stationers to start with, particularly those narrowed down to the men and women who were active in the print debates over religion from 1640-48.  With these names, I was able to run searches in the English Short Title Catalogue, producing over 1500 entries.

One of the fun things about 17th century texts is that they are so weird that beyond the initial search by name, there is so much variation in names, spelling, and forms that it defies automation.  Luckily, I am one of those people who find wrangling data to be immensely calming. It’s my version of gardening.

So now I have my 1500 texts. The metadata for each of them–the author, the publisher, the printer, the bookseller–is not complete. For each, I have at least the title, the publisher who is usually the bookseller, and the year of publication.  I have a complete set of metadata, for my purposes, for about 800 texts.  That does not mean I can still not do a lot with the incomplete texts, but for now I am going to focus on the complete texts.

Having just cleaned the data, initially it appears to me that my earlier suspicion that ideology would win out over capitalist interest does not seem to be correct.  A cursory glance seems to indicate that the stationers are involved in the production of a range of materials, not exclusively of one religious denomination.  I am interested to work with the data more to see what exactly is going on.

The next phase of my project is to visualize the complete texts.  Hopefully these visualizations will reveal more about the networks and relationships among the stationers working in London in the 1640s.  I’m going to start with Excel, but I anticipate quickly moving to Raw and Gephi.