EEBO-TCP: Simplifying the study of Early Modern England for the Blind and Visually Impaired

For our first guest blog post, we’re delighted to introduce Troy Heffernan.

Many of the EEBO-TCP’s advantages are clear. The benefits of having access to tens of thousands of rare and hard to find documents from anywhere in the world with only an internet connection speak for themselves. This extraordinary range of works is why my lecturers and professors have talked passionately about the advantages EEBO-TCP can bring to researchers, while I have also witnessed lecturers of universities without access to EEBO-TCP enthusiastically encourage their students to join libraries or institutions that can access this wealth of material.

I completed by Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts at Sydney’s Macquarie University from 2009-2012 where I focused on Early Modern England, and I was constantly amazed at the information I had access to. However, the benefits of EEBO-TCP were perhaps greater to me than many others. As a legally blind student EEBO-TCP revolutionised the way and speed with which I was able to access material, and reduced the time I had to spend in libraries searching for physical texts. To be clear, I am not 100 per cent blind. I am fortunate enough to be able to read most texts if I have access to the ‘toolbox’ of magnifying aids I have collected since childhood, to my selection of prescription glasses needed for different situations, and if the lighting conditions are correct. My appreciation for what EEBO-TCP has done for blind and visually impaired students and researchers grows further still as I was also a university student between 2001-2004 when I studied secondary education, specialising in English and history. This was a time when, at my university at least, EEBO-TCP did not exist.

Research and university study has always been possible for the visually impaired, and of course EEBO-TCP does not mean researchers no longer have to spend time in libraries and archives, but it can reduce the time they spend in these institutions and can help focus the time they spend searching for texts. Improving how the time of a visually impaired researcher is spent in a library is a great advantage because if they are not fortunate enough to live in college or near their university libraries, transport can often be difficult. Like most things, transport for the visually impaired is possible, but navigating public transport can be difficult and is time consuming; as anyone who uses public transport is well aware. Friends and family can often be relied upon, but this is not always the case and maintaining a certain level of independence is very important to many visually impaired people.

The complications continue once you reach the library. Using computer catalogues, reading shelf numbers, and finding books are all tasks which can be difficult for anyone, but are usually a little more problematic, and takes a little more time, when you are visually impaired. Once you have found the document you wanted, things do become a little easier. Since the creation of the magnifying glass people have been striving to create better and more advanced aids to make difficult texts as clear as possible to read. I have had the privilege of using most of the aids created over the last two to three decades and technology certainly reached a point where even the most faint writing or script was readable to someone with visual impairments similar to mine. However these aids almost exclusively rely on variations of cameras and computer screens, meaning they are rarely transportable with any level of ease, and are often expensive.

EEBO-TCP removes all of these barriers; the difficulties in transport, finding texts, and reading them. Having tens of thousands of documents online provides the perfect place to begin or continue any research project, and this can be done without having to get to a library or museum and sort through their archives. For the blind and visually impaired, one of the great advantages of EEBO-TCP comes from what can be done with the information on the screen. Once a document has been selected the text can be altered at the click of a button. The text can be enlarged, the colours can be inverted, the colours can be altered; in 2013 these are everyday functions of modern computers but the ability to apply these processes to centuries old documents makes an unimaginable difference to the visually impaired. I also know from experience that even text-to-speech software has an amazingly high success rate when applied to these texts due to the clarity with which the documents are presented by EEBO-TCP. Hand written manuscripts or letters are of course difficult, but basic text-to-speech software works with a good level of success, and I am by no means privy to the latest software developments in this area. The onset of mobile devices also allows research to be conducted at virtually any location. No longer are the visually impaired limited to working only in the correct lighting conditions, or where their magnifying screens and aids are located; research can now be conducted at virtually any time or any place.

Qualities such as these make the study of Early Modern England accessible to a much broader group of researchers. EEBO-TCP ensures that visually impaired researchers now face significantly less hurdles than they had to overcome even a decade ago. EEBO-TCP not only simplifies the otherwise difficult and time consuming task of accessing centuries-old texts, it most crucially allows these tasks to be completed in a time frame that is comparable to that of the able sighted.

Troy Heffernan

 

Troy recently completed his Master of Arts in History at Sydney’s Macquarie University. His Masters thesis Assessing the Response to the Great Fire of London 1666-1681 was completed under the guidance of Dr Kate Fullagar and examined Charles II’s response to the reactions and suspicions of the English public. He is currently compiling his PhD proposal Rethinking the Perception of Queen Anne as a Weak Monarch for the Australian National University under the supervision of Dr Alexander Cook and Dr Mark Dawson.

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