The University Record, July 30, 1997

Middle English compendium receives NEH grant

By Janis Giannini
University Library

The University has been awarded $250,000 by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to develop an electronic Middle English Compendium (MEC), a powerful new resource that promises to break new ground in Middle English studies. The development of the MEC is a joint project of the Digital Library Production Service, the University of Michigan Press, the Department of English Language and Literature and the Office of the Vice President for Research.

The ambitious project, a model for electronic access to primary research material, will involve developing three major and interconnected resources: a computerized version of the print Middle English Dictionary (MED), a HyperBibliography (or electronic bibliography) of the MED and an associated network of computer-based medieval resources, including a large collection of Middle English texts.

John Price-Wilkin, project director and head of the Digital Library Production Service, states that the electronic Middle English Dictionary is the hub of the project. "The print version, which is now nearing completion, has been described as the greatest achievement in medieval scholarship in America. An electronic MED will preserve all the details of the print version but will go far beyond, by converting its contents into an enormous database that will allow for much more sophisticated searching than can be done in any print dictionary."

The database will provide access to materials from all periods of Middle English including major literary texts, popular culture, technical writings, medicine, law, science, ship-building, encyclopedias, translations of the Bible, letters, wills, acts of Parliament and food recipesÑproviding a "distant mirror" of medieval culture and society.

Development of the enormous HyperBibliography is an equally challenging part of the project. Frances McSparran, chief editor of the Middle English Compendium and associate professor of English, reports that the HyperBibliography will serve a wide range of scholarly needs. "To begin with, it merges and reconciles the existing print bibliography of the MED and the Supplement. It updates, clarifies and augments this bibliography and makes it searchable in innovative ways, including by manuscript, date, dialect and author. Scholars also will be able to group or bundle together such works in order to search them for specialized vocabulary, usage and stylistic features."

McSparran points out that dialectal information derived from the Linguistic Atlas of Late Mediaeval English, which is being added to the HyperBibliography, will make it easy to plot the regional distribution of the scribal copies of a single text. "This will be an invaluable tool in literary and manuscript studies," she states. "Imagine, for example, being able to map almost instantly the circulation of a text, by plotting the areas associated with the various scribal copies."

The HyperBibliography also will serve as a switching mechanism to related resources, taking users to reliable electronic texts and digitized manuscript images of contents as they become available. In this way, the HyperBibliography will serve as an electronic home base for Middle English studies and will grow as other resources are added.

The third component of the project is a plan to develop an extensive, reliable and growing electronic collection of hundreds of Middle English texts that will be linked to the HyperBibliography.

"A radical feature of the project," says Price-Wilkin, "is our intention to make the product available by license at a moderate cost to other institutions and individuals over the Internet. The flexibility and extensibility of this model is unparalleled at present. It will be affordable to institutions of modest size and resources."