University of Rochester Library Bulletin: But Where Are the Books?

Volume XXVII · Number 1 · Winter 1971-1972

But Where Are the Books?

Rare Book Librarian and Professor of English, Cornell University

Before anyone can embark upon a research project, he needs to know at least two things: what books were printed that are pertinent to his topic, and what libraries have copies of these books. A historian who is doing research in the period of (for example) the Seven Years War may enter a good research library with lists of certain authors and titles that he wishes to investigate, but it is often next to impossible for him to identify in the library the materials pertinent to his topic which he does not already know about. Many pamphlets printed in England during the Seven Years War may be exactly what he is looking for, and they may be present in the library, but so many of these works do not have a standard classification by subject that they are often virtually lost in the library's card catalogue with an entry under title. The most helpful approach to our hypothetical historian would be a chronological listing of all such works according to date of publication, but only a few specialized libraries have such lists. Furthermore, since these lists are not published, no researcher can know of their contents until he visits each library.

The problem is further compounded for our historian by the fact that books and pamphlets printed in England in the eighteenth century are scarce and are widely distributed among many libraries. For example, one recent bibliography of an eighteenth-century author showed that the British Museum had fewer than two-thirds of the items in the bibliography and that Yale and Harvard each had just over one-third; also one-fifth of the items were not to be found in any of the half-dozen largest libraries but were distributed in smaller libraries throughout the United States, Canada and Great Britain. Another recent study revealed that of 441 items produced at one printing house in London in the 1730's and 40's, no copies could be found in any English library for 137 of them. A third modern study tracing copies of all eighteenth-century editions of one popular work disclosed that seventeen libraries had one or more editions of that work that were unique to those institutions.

Thus, the scarcity and the wide distribution of eighteenth-century English materials creates a severe problem for any student of this period. Since there is a lack of bibliographical control over this material, no researcher can presently conduct an investigation with any confidence that he has available to him, in any library, either the quantity or quality of material necessary for his researches. There is no easy answer to the historian's cry: "Where are the books?" So little work has been done in this field that we are not certain even of the scope of the problem, although it has been estimated that the number of items printed in Great Britain from 1701 through 1800 probably lies in the range of 500,000 to 1,000,000. To identify these materials and to locate copies of them will be the largest bibliographical problem ever attempted.

What is needed as the answer to our historian's question will ultimately be provided by an international Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue. At the present time a pilot project for such a catalogue is being conducted by the Five Associated University Libraries (SUNY-Binghamton, SUNY-Buffalo, Cornell, Rochester, and Syracuse). Cards for eighteenth-century English imprints have been culled from all libraries in these universities, and more than 20,000 entries are now being edited. Although small in scope, this study will identify many of the types of problems involved, will furnish techniques for further work, and will determine the unit costs involved in each step of the operation. The information thus gathered will greatly facilitate the expansion of the project to other university libraries. Where all is needed, every bit helps, and this study will contribute its widow's mite.

Since the final catalogue will contain information from hundreds of different libraries, and since so many thousands of items will be listed, one can no longer rely upon the bibliographer's traditional tools -- a pencil and a set of 3" x 5" cards -- but instead must now turn to the sophisticated techniques developed by computer programmers. Indeed, the computers will enable a historian to have access to this material in a number of ways: he will have a chronological listing of all materials according to date of imprint; he will have an alphabetical listing of all items by author or title; and he will be able to have the computer print out for him all items printed in a given city or offered for sale by a famous publisher. Furthermore, print-outs of the bibliography in various forms may be produced inexpensively on new materials such as microfiche, so even the smallest college library will be able to afford to have this bibliographical information available for its students and faculty. At present, such a catalogue is partly a dream and partly an achievable goal, but when it becomes a reality the scholarly world undoubtedly will experience a renaissance in eighteenth-century English studies.


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