University of Rochester

NEH Grant Helps Blake Scholars Reshape Their Field

September 13, 2010

The William Blake Archive Sets the Pace for Electronic Scholarship

Although 18th and 19th century printmaker, poet, and painter William Blake has long been a staple of literature courses and his works fetch millions of dollars at auction, the innovative way he published his "illuminated books" has hindered his legacy. Now a new grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities will allow teams at the University of Rochester and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to continue to develop the William Blake Archive, a free online collection of Blake's writings and illustrations for scholars worldwide.

Before the Blake Archive, Blake scholars and students could read the poems in anthologies, but were not necessarily aware of the myriad illustrated versions Blake created for each work. With a $230,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the graduate students and faculty who staff the Archive will add another 500 digital images to the online collection, add new features to enhance users' experiences of the site, and prepare more than 20 illuminated books, prints, drawings, and paintings for publication, among other advancements. They also will integrate past issues of Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal published at the University of Rochester.

The creators and editors of the site are Morris Eaves, English professor and Richard L. Turner Professor of Humanities at Rochester; Robert Essick, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English literature at the University of California at Riverside; and Joseph Viscomi, James G. Kenan Distinguished Professor of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Eaves is also an editor of Blake/An Illustrated Quarterly.

The high-quality images on the site "allow you to scrutinize to a degree not possible with the black-and-white printed version in a book," says Eaves. The Archive's continued growth is not only of interest to scholars, but teachers and students, too, as the free resource is an alternative to black-and-white reproductions of Blake's artwork in textbooks. Users also can search the archive, not just for text, but also for keywords that describe even the tiniest details of the illustration.

"The Archive is at the forefront of an emerging trend. Scholars are going to have to develop tools that allow for new kinds of textual analysis. It is an intimidating thing, because it takes imagination," says English departmental doctoral student and archive team member Rachel Lee. Since its conception, the Blake Archive has relied on the collaborative efforts of graduate students, and each campus's team has grown from a few to nearly 10 students. The Archive is also one of the earliest examples of digital innovation in the humanities, and provides unprecedented access to Blake's work, including unpublished manuscripts, artwork, and illustrations.

The William Blake Archive imposes no access restrictions or subscription fees. The site is made possible by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with the University of Rochester, the continuing support of the Library of Congress, and the cooperation of an international array of libraries and museums that have generously given permission to reproduce works from their collections in the Archive.

Eaves, Essick, and Viscomi have edited the site since they founded it in 1993. The Archive, launched in 1996, has since become indispensible to the study of Blake. In 2006, the University of Rochester Department of English agreed to sponsor an Archive team that would specialize in text editing. According to Viscomi, "It is one of the most successful and preeminent digital humanities projects in existence."

About the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill prides itself on a strong, diverse student body, academic opportunities not found anywhere else and a value unmatched by any public university in the nation. Home to about 28,900 students, Carolina also is the nation's oldest public university, the only state institution to graduate students in the 18th century. For more information, visit