Kent Hooper: Setting Mother Goose Loose

A digital humanist's obsession with nursery rhymes

Professor Kent HooperKent Hooper reveres great literature and art from “Old World” Europe. But it would be wrong to call him “old school.” A decade ago, the German studies professor dove into the cutting edge of scholarship: the digital humanities, involving the creation of online archives of art, literature, history, and other disciplines. “I was absolutely crazy for it. People just decided to go the other way when they saw me coming, because I was always preaching digital humanities,” he recalls.

Chicago born, with an offbeat sense of humor that wins over his students, Kent is engaged in reinvigorating German studies with new classes and immersive study abroad. But the digital bug won’t let go. He is now creating the biggest-ever online collection of Mother Goose rhymes and illustrations—from “Humpty Dumpty” to “There Was an Old Woman Who Lived in Dundee.” I spoke with him in his Wyatt Hall office.

Q: Why nursery rhymes?
A: I suppose my interest started when I had very small children. We had three nursery rhyme books, and when I’d get to one page, say “Little Boy Blue,” my daughter would go, “I want to read it out of that book,” because she liked the pictures better. I couldn’t figure out what made a better illustration, at least in the eyes of a child. So I take the text, like “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall,” illustrated by hundreds of artists, [and ask]: “Is there any relationship between the rhyme and the illustration? Are there reasons why some rhymes are always in anthologies and others are not?” [Digital humanities] allows us to ask new questions, different questions, to work with larger data sets.

Q: What’s the thrill in creating a digital database of these rhymes? 
A: The easiest thing for me would be to write a book. But that’s not a challenge. The challenge is, I’d like to produce this archive. I’ve typed in the first line of every rhyme of every book I have. I have 40,000 lines in an Excel spreadsheet. I’ve noted who the illustrator is and what year it was published. If I can also scan all 250 of the books I have, it’ll make them available to everybody. Trying to make everything available to as many people as possible—that’s my goal.

Q. How are you collecting your Mother Goose material? 
A. I started buying these books on eBay. Then I discovered that there are book collectors of children’s literature, and they’re completely out of control. They want first editions. I was bidding for a book by one artist, whose name is Maud Humphrey, and her son is Humphrey Bogart. So Humphrey Bogart collectors were bidding against me for a Maud Humphrey’s Mother Goose illustrated book. I vowed I would never become a book collector.

Q: What have you learned so far from your plunge into children’s nursery rhymes? 
A: “Humpty Dumpty” is in almost every anthology. It’s because every single word can be illustrated. You know, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the King’s horses and all the King’s men  couldn’t put Humpty together again.” It’s like one-to-one mapping. And riddles play a big role in a lot of the older books. Humpty [in the older depictions] was almost always an egg. He’s not always shaped like an egg now.

Q: Do you see digital humanities strictly as a scholarly pursuit? 
A: No. I think a digital humanist has an obligation to work with small public archives. Like the Gig Harbor Historical Society. If I were competent [in computer science], I would create an online presence for them. It would be very easy.

Q: Why should digital humanities matter to you and me? 
A: The way of publishing has changed. It’s not the future; it’s already here. I mean medieval manuscripts are now accessible to scholars all around the world. You don’t have to go to some little monastery in the middle of Bumblebee, Germany. It’s right there. And that way, if there are mistakes, you can update it. If people find more information, they can add to it.

Q: To put all these rhymes and pictures online, won’t you hit copyright issues? 
A: The copyright restrictions are the limiting factor. I may have to donate all my books to an institution that is a member of a digital archive, like the HathiTrust. At least scholars at institutions who are members would have access to it. Information just wants to be free. I think that’s one of the chief tenets of digital humanists.

Q: I had a peek at some online student comments, and they pretty well all agreed that you are “warm, caring, hilarious, and insane.” True? 
A: Yes, that’s probably all true. I do care about the students. I really do, and they know that. In every respect I mentor them: professionally, as scholars, I look out for their future, but also just their general well-being. 

Q: For fun you play accordion and penny whistle in an Irish band, Mooncoyne. 
A: Yeah, we’ve put out four or five CDs. You know, one thing we were thinking of doing with Mother Goose was performing all of the rhymes with the Irish band. Because if you listen to a lot of children’s music, it’s terrible. It’s like false synthesization of children’s choirs. So this looked like a project that could actually generate money. And my bandmates are still annoyed that I haven’t done that.


By Shirley Skeel
Published Feb. 1, 2018
Photos by Ross Mulhausen