How balanced a sample is the VPP?

The full catalogue of Lacy’s Acting Edition comprises some 1500 titles, produced by just over 320 different authors. Over a third (583 to be exact) of all titles are produced by a small group of a dozen or so recidivists, each of them accounting for more than 25 titles. These include some predictable exceptions like “Anon” (65 titles), but also some extraordinarily prolific writers like John Maddison Morton (82 titles or 5% of the LAE), J.R. Planché (69 titles), and Henry James Byron (51 titles). In the second rank of creativity, there are 20 authors each of whom is responsible for producing between 10 and 25 titles, and who collectively account for 346, about a fifth of the whole. These include such familiar names as William Shakespeare (24 titles), just ahead of the less famous Thomas Egerton Wilks (23 titles) and some distance from George Colman (12 titles). At the other end of the scale, only a tenth of titles (171) are the product of an author otherwise unrepresented.

One of my first questions when looking at the Victorian Plays Project catalogue was the extent to which it might be considered a representative sample of the whole LAE. That of course depends on the basis on which you are sampling: as a first exercise, I consider here authorship. The VPP sample contains 343 titles, which are the product of 130 authors, only 8 of whom produce more than 10 titles, and nearly half of whom (74) produce only one title. This seems like a markedly different frequency distribution. Moreover, the ranking of authors within a “top twenty” list for the two corpora shows some surprising differences. Some authors who appear high in the upper half of the LAE list, e.g. Williams and Selby, trail near the bottom of the VPP list. It is unsurprising to find that titles low down the VPP list are also low down the LAE list; what does surprise me is the disparity in ranking for the comparatively frequent authors. Tom Taylor, the highest ranking VPP author of all, is only the 10th most frequent author in LAE; and John Palgrave Simpson, who ranks 12th in LAE, only just scrapes into the 25th row of VPP. Some of these oddities may be attributed to editorial decisions by the VPP: for example to exclude entirely titles by one William Shakespeare, even though these are ranked 14th in LAE.

Anyway, here are the Lacy Acting Edition Top Twenty authors, ranked by the number of titles attributed to them.

LAE rank VPP rank Titles (LAE/VPP) Author SDA dates
1 3 82/15 Morton, John Maddison * 1811-1891 A1
2 4 69/14 Planché, J.R. * 1796-1880 A1
3 6 65/13 [Anon.]    
4 5 51/14 Byron, Henry James * 1835-1884 A2
5 7 41/12 Suter, William E.   1811-1882 A1
6 2 40/17 Brough, William * 1826-1870 A2
7 16 38/5 Williams, Thomas J. * 1824-1874 A2
8 19 37/5 Selby, Charles * 1802-1863 A1
9 11 36/7 Burnand, Francis C. * 1836-1917 A2
10= 1 34/20 Taylor, Tom * 1817-1880 A2
10= 8 34/12 Coyne, Joseph Stirling * 1803-1868 A1
12= 25 28/4 Simpson, John Palgrave * 1807-1887 A1
12= 20 28/5 Oxenford, John * 1812-1877 A1
14 0 24/0 Shakespeare, William   1564-1616 A1
15 24 23/4 Wilks, Thomas Egerton   1812-1854 A1
16 14 19/6 Stirling, Edward   1809-1894 A1
17= 0 18/1 Wooler, John Pratt   1824-1868 A2
17= 18 18/6 Talfourd, Francis * 1828-1862 A2
17= 21 18/5 Jerrold, Douglas * 1803-1857 A1
17= 11 18/7 Halliday, Andrew * 1830-1877 A2
LAE Top 20 Authors


There is of course much more one might wish to say about these authors. It is unsurprising to find that they are all males, and equally that they are mostly members of the Dramatic Authors Society, the agency which had been founded to ensure their copyrights were observed, and which also required payment of a fee for provincial representation. Their dates, with four exceptions, are taken from Wikipedia, where there is much else is to be found. (The exceptions yet to be immortalized on Wikipedia are William Suter, Thomas J. Williams, Thomas Egerton Wilks, and John Pratt Wooler : their dates are taken from the Hathi Trust catalogue record). Just for fun, I decided to categorize them into two age groups on the following basis:

A1: born before the Battle of Waterloo (1815)

A2: born after Waterloo but before the Great Reform Act (1832)

Unexpectedly there are equal numbers in each group.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should add that the list of plays so far converted to TEI format demonstrates a tiny and even more divergent sampling of these authors. The most frequent author so far converted is J Maddison Morton with 6 titles, which corresponds well with the LAE ranking, but the next three in that ranking are all so far missing entirely. In fact, of the authors in the LAE top twenty, the following are all so far missing: Planche, Byron, Suter, Williams, Selby, Shakespeare, Wilks, Stirling, Wooler, Talfourd, and Halliday. Only five authors are so far represented by more than one title (Morton, Coyne, Courtney, Oxenford, and W.S. Gilbert).

As comparison, I also took a look at the author counts for the 45 or so LAE titles selected for inclusion in the Chawyck Healey “English Drama” collections. Only 10 authors appear here more than once, all of them represented by no more than 2 titles, except Simpson, who clocks in three. Only four of these authors also appear in the LAE Top Twenty (the inescapable John Maddison Morton, J.R. Planche, John Palgrave Simpson, and Thomas Egerton Wilks). Clearly these titles were selected on some other grounds than their frequency in the LAE.

Counting the Books contd.

A couple of days ago I reported here on some imbalance in the representation of male and female novelists in current digital archives, written while I was still trying to persuade the Google Books server to do tricks for me. I can now report further progress. After 21 iterations, I did finally manage to confect a complete list of all the ATCL titles freely available from Google Books. Putting this together with data already stored in ATCL for Google, I have now identified 2823 ATCL titles in Google Books, which brings the total number of known digitizations up to 11,510: 58% of all available titles. This seemed good enough pretext to revisit the summary table I produced last time, so here it is again in a new and hopefully slightly more comprehensible form:

Revised counts

As might have been predicted, with more data the situation becomes more nuanced. Note first that the percentages of available titles which get digitized (column “%dig”) apparently decreases as the actual number of texts available for digitization (column “All”) increases, suggesting that the more titles you have available the less likely you are to deal with any one of them. Only tentative conclusions are warranted, since we are lacking so much data for the later part of the century. That said, comparing the columns M-dig and F-dig suggests that throughout the century, digitizers are consistently and disproportionately more likely to go for a male-authored text. Even in titles from the 1850s, where there are substantially more female authored titles available than male (778 as opposed to 595), the proportion of them which get digitized is still lower than the proportion of male authored titles (79% as opposed to 84%). In the 1880s, 55% of titles are explicitly female-authored, as opposed to 41% male (the remainder being unspecified); yet the male authors are still sampled for digitization at a far higher rate (59% as opposed to 37%).

My previous accusations of sexism amongst the digitizers en masse thus vindicated I next considered the practice of individual archives. The following table shows the numbers of ATCL titles I found in each of five major archives, and the proportions attributed to male and female authors in each.

Hathi Trust5655356820226563%36%
Google Books28231138158010540%56%
British Lib51042742225211054%44%
Digitization choices by archive

Overall, the balance is comparable with that shown in the previous table: a small preference for male as opposed to female authored titles (54% to 44%). But this is perhaps concealing a marked variation in practice amongst the archives. At one extreme, Project Gutenberg has nearly three times as many male authored titles as female, while at the other Google Books actually has significantly more female authors than male (56% as opposed to 40%). In between is the British Library Microsoft collection, which matches exactly the proportions for all the archives combined.

Irrespective of gender, how much variation is there in the holdings of these archives? Here’s a frequency distribution showing how many ATCL titles are available from 1, 2, or more archives (note that I cannot distinguish how many of these are actually copies of the same digital version).

Archive overlap: how many titles are available from how many archives?

Encouragingly, this suggests that there is little overlap amongst the holdings of the main digital archives: 63% of all 11,511 digitized titles listed occur in only one archive, 87% in one or two.

Which titles get digitized most frequently? This is hard to tell, for several reasons. Some archives list multi-volume titles as multiple copies; some archives list items simply copied from other archives. For my Google Books listing I excluded titles which were already listed by another archive. But for what it’s worth, here, in no particular order, are the fifteen titles listed as available from all five archives I looked at:

  • Caine, Hall (1853-1931). The Deemster: A Romance (1887)
  • Caine, Hall (1853-1931). A Son of Hagar: A Romance of Our Time (1887)
  • Hamerton, Philip Gilbert (1834-1894). Wenderholme: A Story of Lancashire and YorkshireEdinburgh: Blackwood 1869
  • Collins, Wilkie (1824-1889). Antonina: or, The Fall of Rome. A Romance of the Fifth Century London: Bentley 1850
  • Collins, Wilkie (1824-1889). The Woman in White London: Sampson Low1860
  • Eliot, George (pseud.) (1819-1880). The Mill on the Floss. Edinburgh: Blackwood 1860
  • Dickens, Charles (1812-1870). Oliver Twist: or, The Parish Boy’s Progress. London: Bentley 1838
  • Eliot, George (pseud.) (1819-1880). Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life. Edinburgh: Blackwood 1872
  • Gaskell, Elizabeth Cleghorn (1810-1865). Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life. London: Chapman and Hall 1848
  • Grant, James (1822-1887). The Romance of War: or, The Highlanders in Spain London: Henry Colburn 1847
  • Dickens, Charles (1812-1870). Barnaby Rudge: A Tale of the Riots of ‘EightyLondon: Chapman and Hall 1841
  • Dickens, Charles (1812-1870). Bleak HouseLondon: Bradbury and Evans 1853
  • Wood, Mrs. (-). It May be True: A Novel. London: T. C. Newby 1865
  • Oliphant, Margaret (1828-1897). Harry Jocelyn. London: Hurst and Blackett 1881
  • Ouida, (pseud.) (1839-1908). Folle-Farine. London: Chapman and Hall 1871

No, it makes no sense to me either. I expected to see Charles Dickens and George Eliot and Mrs Gaskell on the list, but Hall Caine and Philip Hamerton? Clearly one needs to be very careful in interpreting this data.

See previous bloggage for details of how the numbers were obtained. Supporting data and scripts have been updated in my github repo.

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