May 19, 2022

Digital Humanities: NEH Supports U. of Chicago/Oxford U. Digital Project Focused on 18th-Century Intellectual History

From the University of Chicago:

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.


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.


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— [our emphasis] 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.

Direct to Full Text Article

Direct to Commonplace Cultures Project Web Site

More on the Resources the Project Plans to Utilize

We are targeting three primary data repositories for this project: the Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) database made available by Cengage Learning (over 135,000 works); a sub- set of 18th-century texts drawn from the HathiTrust public domain collection (66,000 records); and 18th-century volumes (34,000 titles) drawn from the Google Books collection held at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries. While the majority of these works are in English, there is also a rich vein of works printed in French, German, Dutch, Italian, Latin, Spanish and Welsh, over a large and diverse range of subject areas.

See Also: 10 International Organizations Announce Winners of Digging Into Data Challenge (Round 3) (January 15, 2014)

About Gary Price

Gary Price ( is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.