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English Professor Takes American Literature Anthologies, Merit Debates Online
For decades, scholars have debated which authors and which works should be included in the American literary canon. Some argue merit based on theme or a writer's birthplace; others allow political and personal agendas to shape their tomes. Few have been able to look at a complete, historical overview of these literary anthologies, which reflect the shifting canon.
For more than 12 years, Dr. Kenneth Roemer, Professor of English, has been reviewing and cataloging American literature anthologies. With the help of a grant from the National Endowment of Humanities, Roemer plans to make his core collection - nearly 400 volumes, supplemental books and articles related to anthologies - available online.
"We're trying to provide more accurate information for people to use so they would have historical perspective on this whole notion of what has been defined as 'American literature' and the changing trends," said Roemer. "We can see what was taught or who was included and see who the editors are or how they changed. Students can see how publishers have defined what is passed from generation to generation."
The genesis for the project came in 1998 during a graduate course Roemer was teaching. Assignments and research led to conversations about qualifications for anthological inclusion and review of unscientific methods for determining the writers and the stories that were offered by various editors and publishers. The concept of a central repository comparing and contrasting more than 150 years of published works grew, Roemer said.
"During the 1980s, part of the cultural wars had to do with American literature [and] what should be included, what should not be included," Roemer said. "Much of the arguments that went around were biased by ideological backgrounds, theoretical inclinations or lack of evidence. They based choices on personal experiences, anecdotal reasons or a very small sample of American literature anthologies."
So Roemer sought to push the "why" aside for a time and focus solely on the "who" and "what." He began collecting anthologies and pulling together research through the university's Central Library. Tables of content, editors and publishing information were categorized and added to a growing database. An interdisciplinary grant from the university and a seed grant from the College of Liberal Arts enabled Roemer and his team of student volunteers to access UT Arlington's Digital Library Services as well as hire dedicated workers.
Karen Horsfall, director of Digital Library Services, said Roemer engaged her team during the summer of 2009 to do some scanning and data processing. To re-type the sheer volume of information the project needed into a database was counterproductive. Technology and advances in optical character recognition would allow the project team to utilize high-speed scanners and process several anthologies at a time. PDF versions of the pages were created, as well as meta-data for all items. Horsfall said in order to make the eventual search engine as accurate as possible, proofreading each page as it was converted from print to digital copy was essential. The grant money Roemer received from university sources, she said, helped cover the cost for hiring graduate students to work on that component of the project.
Additional grant money, Horsfall said, would enable the team to push the project further along. In addition to processing new pages, the team needs to review older pages and reprocess that content. A more robust search engine - with the ability to search via author, subject, title, anthology and anthology editor or publisher - as well as website design and testing is needed. And a visual timeline of when an author or a specific work appeared in the American literature canon would need to be created from scratch since that component, Horsfall said, is "pretty advanced functionality; you can't get it out of the box."
"This project is ideal for researchers who are doing Ph.D. or master's work in teaching or literature," Horsfall said. "It brings a lot of different text together you wouldn't normally have available. It also brings disparate views and critiques of works that enables people to do that sort of research. It wasn't possible to do that before."
Horsfall said she and her team would continue scanning and cataloging anthological entries until grant money is available to begin additional stages of the site.
Even in a rudimentary form, the site has already gained national interest from those in American literary circles. Roemer and two graduate students made a presentation in the spring of 2010 at a national conference on American literature, impressing many of those in the audience. As a result, several literature professors and anthology editors agreed to write letters to the NEH on Roemer's behalf or volunteered to be on the project's board once the grant is approved.
"I think it's profoundly important," said Dr. Karen Kilcup, professor of American literature at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. "I've done a mini-version of what [Dr. Roemer] is trying to do by incorporating all anthologies. ... It's an ambitious project."
Kilcup thinks the online resource will be particularly empowering to students. Huge volumes can seem daunting, she said, especially for those who view the collected works as the "epitome of knowledge."
"When [students] see [these anthologies] are not engraved in stone, they understand there are political, cultural and economic issues at stake in the ways anthologies are constructed. The scope of the comparison that is possible is good for students, parents, [and] school boards. What constitutes the best of American literature will be at their fingertips."
Roemer envisions the anthology database as a resource to more than just literature students and faculty. Textbook committees, school board, civic leaders and politicians would all benefit from having this knowledge immediately available, he said.
"Local and state textbook committees could use this as a resource to see what is available, so they can make educated decision on what has been done and what is being done," he said. "Cultural leaders and politicians might use this to help define what should be handed down from generation to generation. This would make their comments more accurate."
Ultimately, Roemer said, the project represents a one-stop shop for a variety of users who were once confined by geography and resources.
"There's tremendous value here," he said. "You don't have to go to 40 different librarians to do your research. This project makes the information accessible in another way."
Kilcup agrees, pointing out that few researchers have access to well-funded libraries and international interlibrary loans can take weeks or months to process. Moreover, she's delighted Roemer and his team are making their hard work available to anyone online and not keeping such value information to themselves.
"This will make it possible for someone with Internet access to look at the collection," Kilcup said. "This project reaches well outside [UT Arlington] and Texas to the world. I think that's really important."
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