More than “Harmless Drudgery”: An Undergraduate Research Assistant’s Perspective

By Hannah Eiserman

Hannah Eiserman lives, writes, and studies in oskana kā-asastēki (now called Regina, Saskatchewan). She is currently the Arts and Culture editor for The Carillon. Her published work can be found on her website

This is part 1 of Hannah’s two-part essay, reflecting on her work for JDO.

My Contributions as a Johnsons Dictionary Online Research Assistant

When Dr. Carmen Faye Mathes asked me if I would be interested in being a Research Assistant for the Johnson’s Dictionary Online Project, I was honoured and excited, but I can say with honesty that I never expected to become so attached to a nearly three-hundred-year-old dictionary. My daily retreat to my work, with its constancy and the near-instant gratification of making visible progress on my tasks, became relaxing and steadying in what has been a very tumultuous year. My work began early in 2021 and concluded on August 31st of that year.

I started by helping to add tags in the XML code; XML is used both to build the Johnson’s Dictionary Online website and to help categorize various parts of the dictionary such as etymology, people, places, authors, or titles. The team is adding these tags so that future researchers who use the online Dictionary will eventually be able to search and review the myriad of references that Johnson compiled. For example, a person wanting to know how many times Hamlet is quoted can search for it by name and all corresponding entries will be made available. I caught onto this process quickly because of many years as the typical introvert, trying to teach myself website design in HTML. As a fourth-year English honours major, however, my talents and knowledge in literature and language proved to be much more vital to the dictionary team than my coding skills.

From XML tagging, I moved on to the task of compiling a bibliography of the sources of Johnson’s citations. This started out easily enough, with the pursuit of “low-hanging fruit” as we called them: identifying the various plays of Shakespeare, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene, and the various periodicals of Joseph Addison, to name a few. Dr. Mathes and the other research assistant from the University of Regina also helped me with this task, largely researching the authors tagged B-M.

Once we had identified all the widely-known authors and titles, we moved on to finding the more obscure ones: titles with no authors, authors with no titles, excerpts from varying reference manuals and other dictionaries that were popular at the time, and even quotes that were attributed to the wrong works. When I’d narrowed those down as much as possible the spreadsheet was passed on to the professionals, and I compiled a new spreadsheet of Johnson’s mistakes that I had noticed for the researchers to go over. I’m told that this made me very popular with the team, and the work was even dubbed “Hannah’s spreadsheet” in my honour.

My final task was proofreading the website, comparing scanned copies of Johnson’s original Dictionary on one side of my computer monitor with the transcribed website-version on the other. This work sometimes includes changes as small as an extra space or a comma instead of a semi-colon, but I’ve also found blocks of text that were somehow skipped over during the original transcription.

Stay tuned for part 2 of Hannah’s essay!