As Meredith Martin began writing The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930, she realized that the archival material that supported the book’s argument would not work in a traditional academic monograph. In 2003, while still a graduate student at the University of Michigan, her advisor Yopie Prins suggested that she consult T. V. F. Brogan’s 1981 bibliography English Versification, 1570-1980 A Reference Guide With a Global Appendix, from which she began to gather primary materials for her dissertation; she supplemented these materials with others that were newly available online once she began her position at Princeton in 2006. Her goal was to provide scholars a way to search across the full-text of books and articles about English versification so as to open up the history of conversations, controversies, and accounts of English poetic form from across the centuries. From 2007 on, when she began to assemble the archive in earnest, she was in conversation with Brogan about the project; he passed away in 2012, and the Princeton Prosody Archive is dedicated to his memory.
What began as three-ring binders of printed PDFs turned into an unruly Endnote file in 2008, and, in 2009, was transformed into two rounds of linked articles in an early version of Zotero. Martin worked with then graduate student Amelia Worsley as the first research assistant on the project, and Worsley spent countless hours organizing materials. A frozen Firefox browser stalled one MacBook, and three external hard drives crashed. In 2009, Martin began working with Grant Wythoff. The first two years of the project were related to gathering materials and figuring out how to organize them. When Wythoff joined the project, Martin received support from the Princeton University Humanities Council to hire a contract programmer to build full-text search functionality with page images in a MySQL database. This was unsuccessful. Martin and Wythoff realized that in order to truly make these materials available, they needed to engage with scholars of digital humanities and, ultimately, to begin a Digital Humanities Initiative at Princeton.
Concurrent to starting the Digital Humanities Initiative at Princeton (the gestational phase of what is now the Center for Digital Humanities (CDH)), Martin and Wythoff shifted their focus away from journal articles when the Princeton’s Office of the General Counsel could not reach an agreement with Gale/Cengage to allow for both full-text searching and page image displays for the periodical materials in ECCO. With Wythoff’s help, the PPA partnered with Google Books and HathiTrust in 2011. After a considerable amount of negotiation, the HathiTrust delivered more than 8,000 monographs—their full text and MARC metadata—for the PPA to host on its servers. In 2012, the PPA was awarded an Officer’s Grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to begin imagining a public-facing version of the searchable full-text data that would display images. Part of the Mellon grant provided a year of funding for Grant Wythoff to act as the inaugural Assistant in Research in the Humanities, a position usually reserved at Princeton for graduate students working in labs in the applied sciences.
In 2013, Martin and Wythoff also used the Mellon funds to hire Travis Brown, who was then working at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities (MITH) and who had built the Shelley-Godwin Archive. Brown developed the back end of PPA 2.0, which allowed users to browse and search through its fully indexed content; the materials to that site were provided by HathiTrust. The data structure Brown built existed alongside a Drupal interface designed by Ben Johnston, who had consulted on the project since 2011 but whose work as an educational technologist prevented him from taking it on entirely. Johnston was an early collaborator in the Digital Humanities Initiative at Princeton. The Mellon grant also funded the first PPA advisory board meeting in 2013 and invited scholars of digital humanities and the history of versification to campus to talk about possibilities. In those early days, just seeing page images of old books was enough to convince many scholars that the work of the PPA was worthwhile.
The PPA interface worked well enough and the source materials from HathiTrust were available to search and view, but there was a big problem: HathiTrust delivered multiple digital surrogates of each book, one or many more than one from each participating library. For instance, were one to search for Joseph Mayor’s Chapters on English Metre (1901), the PPA replicated Hathi in that it had six copies of this book: one from Harvard, one from Cornell, one from Michigan, and three from various University of California libraries. Meagan Wilson, who succeeded Wythoff as project manager, inherited the herculean task of locating all duplicate records, prioritizing which surrogates to keep based on consortium libraries and the quality of the scans, and hand-checking each choice to be certain that the record we were keeping matched HathiTrust’s metadata (which it often did not). This task occupied Wilson from 2014-2016, and thanks to generous support from a combination of campus sources, Wilson became the second Assistant in Research in the Humanities at Princeton (her labor and research as a project manager was compensated by a year of funding) .
As Wilson reorganized the records and eliminated duplicates, she also worked with Martin to identify records according to three categories: those that were part of Brogan’s original bibliography (which they called “Brogan”); those related to the pronunciation side of prosody that were part of Martin’s own additional research; and those that contained typographically unique material. Wilson then created “collections” that the site indexed. As she worked, she became increasingly frustrated that each edit or correction required bothering Ben Johnston to re-index the site; the structure prevented the primary researcher (Martin) to manipulate the data in the PPA without the involvement of Ben Johnston. Wilson and Martin began to dream of a back end that they could access themselves, add notes to, and track additions or deletions. Wilson began to reimagine the front-end interface as well, and, along with Martin, wrote a proposal to redesign the website.
Concurrent to these dreams, Martin was working to reimagine how humanities scholars could and might work with technology in more fruitful and less siloed ways. As the CDH expanded, the ethos of transparency and translation across technological and disciplinary boundaries, including careful attention to the importance of UX Design, became part of the defining orientation of the Center for Digital Humanities at Princeton. Martin and Wilson presented a poster session related to the deduplication work at the annual Digital Humanities conference in Lausanne, Switzerland in 2014, and in 2015 presented the PPA at the conference “Cultural Analytics Computational Approaches to the Study of Literature.” It was at this conference that Andrew Piper, Richard Jean So, Hoyt Long, Ted Underwood, and several others who would become the NovelTM group first pitched the idea of the Journal of Cultural Analytics. Wilson and Martin also applied for an NEH grant in 2014 which they did not receive, but at that point had learned a great deal about project management, project scoping, and the importance of assigning realistic timelines to data-oriented tasks.
In 2016, the PPA redesign began—though slowly. Martin had devoted most of her time, since 2014, to the Center for Digital Humanities in her capacity as Faculty Director, pausing most of her own work on the PPA as Wilson worked to de-duplicate the records. By 2016, though the Center was still growing, the PPA partnered with the CDH to create the PPA 3.0. The site underwent an intense period of user experience testing over the course of 2017-2018, involving the members of the new advisory board, whom Martin and Wilson brought to campus in order to test a beta version of the new site in May 2018. Mary Naydan took the lead as the project manager for the site as Meagan Wilson moved on to Ithaka S+R. Beginning in September 2018, Naydan worked closely with the CDH development team (Lead Developer Rebecca Koeser, Front-End Developer Nick Budak, UX Designers Xinyi Li and Gissoo Douradian) to complete the 3.0 version of the site, which officially launched in March 2019. As part of the site redesign, Naydan and Martin worked to re-categorize the collections, re-naming and re-assigning categories to the HathiTrust materials already in the site and adding additional collections in response to the advisory board’s suggestions. Naydan oversaw all aspects of the data work, renewing our agreement with HathiTrust and negotiating for a new agreement that would allow undergraduate researchers and others to use the data for non-expressive research purposes. During AY18-19, Naydan also managed a team of undergraduate research assistants who worked to assign works to the newly re-named editorial collections and to locate items cited in Brogan that were currently missing from the PPA and not in HathiTrust. Naydan arranged for Princeton-owned items to be digitized and worked with Rebecca Koeser to build the framework that would allow Princeton-digitized materials to live in the site alongside HathiTrust materials (though this part of the PPA is still a work in progress). The undergraduate students' work over the AY18-19 was funded by grants from Princeton’s University Committee on Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (UCRHSS) and a Dataset Curation Grant from the CDH. As an outcome of this work, the PPA has published the Brogan spreadsheets as a dataset available for download on Zenodo. Because the PPA was an official CDH project, it underwent the process CDH innovated of “chartering”—essentially, project planning for the development cycle that outlined responsibilities for the data work, technical work, design testing, sustainability plan, and warranty. A less summarized version of the collaborative work between the CDH and Martin and Naydan can be found in the project charters, which you can download here.
Over the course of 2019 and 2020, Naydan, Martin, and Koeser began a partnership with Gale/Cengage to expand the PPA’s holdings of eighteenth-century materials. A Gale/Cengage salesperson arrived at the CDH to pitch the new DH tools that Gale was building; similar to the HathiTrust Research Center’s suite of tools, which had been under development as the PPA evolved, Gale was piloting a “Digital Scholar Lab” based on materials owned by Gale. Martin and Naydan spoke with Patty Gaspari-Bridges about Princeton’s comprehensive subscriptions to Gale, and set up a meeting with two of the developers who were finally willing to help integrate material from ECCO into the PPA. The project team then worked to identify relevant material in ECCO and curate these into our existing collections, while the development team worked on the technical logistics of integrating Gale material into the Archive via an API. Simultaneously, Naydan and Bain-Swiggett Assistant in Research Caitlin Crandell prepared the metadata necessary to excerpt materials in HathiTrust. This work took place slowly, and virtually, during the COVID-19 pandemic and provided funding for undergraduate and graduate researchers. (Caitlin Crandell was the third Assistant in Research to work on the PPA, while two additional ARs had been funded by that time on another CDH project.) During the summer of 2021, Naydan collaborated with the CDH development and design team on a new release that incorporates full-work Gale materials and HathiTrust excerpts. This update substantially expands and refines the PPA’s holdings, and puts us one step closer to achieving our goal of completing the Original Bibliography as Brogan imagined it—and enabling a richer research experience across the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and across two distinct proprietary databases.
Over the years, the PPA has been generously supported by an Officer’s Grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; Sponsored Project and Dataset Curation Grants from the CDH; and grants from Princeton’s University Committee on Research in the Humanities and Social Sciences (UCRHSS) and Humanities Council.
Martin has presented work related to the PPA at DH2014, DH2018, The North American Victorian Studies Association (NAVSA), the Modern Languages Association, and at invited talks at the Maryland Institute of Technology (MITH), the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, the University of New South Wales, Cambridge University, York University, Stanford University, Cornell University, Lynchburg College, the University of Michigan, the University of Utah, and the City University of NY.
Citations of the PPA
Despite the many changes to the Archive over the years, scholars have nevertheless found their way to its resources. Though certainly incomplete, here is a list of scholarly sources and media outlets who have mentioned the PPA over the past several years.
- Cornelius, Ian. Reconstructing Alliterative Verse: The Pursuit of a Medieval Meter (Cambridge U P, 2017) (See citation)
- Jackson, Virginia. “Poe’s Common Meter” in The Oxford Handbook of Edgar Allan Poe, ed. J. Gerald Kennedy and Scott Peeples (Oxford U P, 2018) (See citation)
- Prins, Yopie. "Sapphic Stanzas: How Can We Read the Rhythm?" in Critical Rhythm: The Poetics of a Literary Life Form, ed. Ben Glaser and Jonathan Culler (Fordham U P, 2019): 251.
- Gerber, Natalie and David Nowell Smith. “Editors’ Introduction: Intonation,” Thinking Verse V (2015): 1-14.
- Rybak, Chuck. “Poetry,” Digital Pedagogy in the Humanities: Concepts, Models, and Experiments, MLA Commons
News & Blogs
- French, Amanda. “The 7 Best Links to Digital Poetry Projects from MLA,” Jan. 14, 2014.
- Meyer, Leila. “Princeton Establishes Online Prosody Archive for Study of Poetry,” Campus Technology, Feb. 10, 2015.
- “Princeton University English Department Works to Create Digital Prosody Archive,” Coldfront Magazine, Feb. 13, 2015.
- Zandonella, Catherine. “Princeton Prosody Archive brings digital tools to the study of poetry,” Princeton University, Feb. 9, 2015.