(Updated August 4, 2014)
Q: What is Visible Prices?
A: Visible Prices (VP) is an in-development digital humanities database project: a searchable collection of price information from literary and historical texts. It is designed to help users understand the purchasing power of prices (i.e., £5), and/or explore the different prices recorded for a good, service, or experience.
Q: Where is it?
A: It’s still in development, but you can play with a recent prototype built with USC’s Scalar. A new version should be coming in the early fall.
Q: Where does this information come from?
A: Price information can come from any text: novels, short stories, poems, letters, nonfictional essays, pamphlets, newspaper articles, advertisements, trade journals, court records, and ledgers, to name only a few. To be eligible for inclusion, the information needs to include a specific numeric price, and a specific object, as well as bibliographical information. A novel that mentions that silk is “expensive” in London is too abstract — but a listing for “1 oz. of ground cinnamon for 1 shilling” is fine.
In the last several years, numerous historical texts have been digitized and made available online through Google Books, HathiTrust, the Digital Public Library of America, as well as through commercial databases such as EEBO, ECCO, NCCO, and the British Newspaper Archive. These online collections have made it easier to obtain price information — though I am happy to include information from printed/non-digitized texts as well.
Q: What range of prices does Visible Prices cover?
A: The most recent prototype focuses on the decade of 1845-54 in England. I have been gathering data from eighteenth and nineteenth century English texts for the initial stages of the project — however, eventually, Visible Prices should be able to contain price information from any region or time period, utilizing multiple currencies.
Q: Who can contribute to the database?
A: Anyone who has access to data about prices from the range of dates and regions that the database includes. I anticipate that users might range from advanced undergraduate students to senior scholars, as well as members of the public, but in practice, it will depend on how Visible Prices is being used.
Q: What do you mean by “literary and historical texts?”
A: Economic history databases often collect information from a particular type of record that is considered to be authoritative — for example, the price of wheat at a specific marketplace over time; or the set of ledgers associated with a particular seaport. In contrast, Visible Prices aggregates information collected from a wide variety of records, gathering prices set, or imagined, by a more diverse set of the population.
Q: Why are you putting real and fictional prices in the same database?
A: Because though people often think of fiction vs. nonfiction as “made up vs. real,” the reality is more complex. Fictional authors use authentic facts to provide verisimilitude — the details in their novels are often drawn from the world in which they lived. Literary authors in England who wrote during the 18th and 19th centuries as the genre of the novel emerged and developed, were particularly conscious that readers responded in part to the ability of a text to seem realistic. As Visible Prices develops, it will allow users to explore how certain authors used prices, how economic data was part of literary detail, and on a broader level, the variety of prices set by a greater range of individuals in a greater variety of contexts.
Q: Who can use it?
A: I am committed to building Visible Prices as an open-access resource, so that anyone can use it.
Q: Does the database contain whole texts?
A: No. Works themselves are not being archived; and the only content that is quoted directly is the sentence or sentences containing the price information, which is factual, and governed by fair use standards. You can read more about fair use and copyright here. In most cases, the texts that VP draws on are in the public domain; and entries include information that will allow users to find a copy of the text, either online, or via the English Short Title Catalogue, which allows users to look up texts, and see the libraries that hold them.
One of my goals in creating this resource is to make it easier for readers to identify texts that will be useful to them, enhancing the services that libraries provide.
Q: Who is the developer of Visible Prices?
A: My name is Paige Morgan, and I finished my Ph.D. in English and Textual Studies at the University of Washington in June 2014. Though the database is my original concept, Visible Prices wouldn’t have come this far without lots of help from people who have educated me on technical requirements, discussed critical issues, and asked good questions.
Visible Prices is an independent project. It is not part of my dissertation — although my research does focus on 18th and 19th century economics and literature. My dissertation explores the work of specific 18th century authors and their articulation of economic thought. In contrast, Visible Prices is a larger-scale and more exploratory project. By building it, I am arguing that we should pay more attention to the prices that appear in literary and historical texts. As I build it, I am learning more about where and how these prices appear. Visible Prices was my gateway into studying digital humanities — and the project itself has been a personal tool that I have used to learn more about humanities computing, programming, and software development. In the process, I’ve learned more than I can list — but this essay on digital humanities project development is a pretty good encapsulation of how my knowledge has developed.
Q: How are you building the database?
A: Visible Prices will be a semantic web/linked open data application, built with RDF and OWL. You can read more about RDF at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) specification and standards, or read my Technical Statement for a briefer explanation written for non-programmers. Though I considered and tested other platforms and languages (including PHP, MySQL, and TEI), after considerable research it is clear that semantic web languages are the best option for representing the extremely diverse and varied price data that is available in the source texts.
Q: What are the challenges involved in developing this project?
A: The first challenge was figuring out what platform to build Visible Prices in. That feels resolved, and though building the database is work in itself, it’s not mysterious or uncertain — by now, I know a lot about the shape of this data, and its peculiarities. The next major challenge will be figuring out the best way to populate the database on a large scale. While it’s possible to query the APIs for some of the large databases, their OCR (optimal character recognition) isn’t always accurate. I’m working on that, however, and will write more as I learn more.
Q: Will you come and talk to my class/organization/students about Visible Prices and/or DH project development?
A: I would be happy to, provided that we can work out arrangements for travel and lodging.
Q: I found an entry that you should include! How do I send it to you?
A: There will be an entry form for this soon; in the mean time, feel free to contact me directly via Twitter or email (paigecmorgan) AT gmail.
Q: When will it be complete?
A: As any digital humanist can tell you, there are multiple stages of “done” for any project. I expect to have a new prototype available in early fall, utilizing RDF/OWL. That prototype will be small, but will allow me to test the data architecture. Once those tests are complete and any bugs have been resolved, Visible Prices will keep growing.