restricted access ESTC and the Bibliographical Community
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ESTC and the Bibliographical Community

The British Library's opening of the English Short-Title Catalogue (ESTC) to free public access on the Web in the autumn of 2006 drew a grateful and eager response from the worldwide community of scholars and their universities.1 Similar sentiments echoed from a lower-profile network of antiquarian booksellers, who, mostly lacking institutional support, had to weigh the potential value of every search in the file against a unit charge (in the United States) of $2.28 plus a connection fee of $4.05 per hour.2 Whoever footed the bill, the ongoing expense of consulting ESTC was the cyber-equivalent of the hefty up-front payment needed to acquire its printed predecessors, STC and Wing.3 The freeing of ESTC, which combines those two components with a continuation up to and including 1800, now places in one location, for the consultation of anyone with internet access, the fullest and most up-to-date bibliographical account of 'English' printing (in the broadest sense) for its first 328 years. Within its scope it has no rival. At the same time it cannot be called 'definitive' in the same way that one might have been in the habit of considering STC and Wing. This is because of its peculiar evolution over thirty years as an online database — always under construction, always exposed to damage from careless or ill-informed alterations, but always capable of improvement. Now that the British Library has made ESTC widely available, the time seems appropriate to explore some aspects of the relationship between this fluidity of content and the file's status as an authoritative resource.

The perspective that I bring to this discussion is slightly unusual and requires a disclosure. I was a cataloguer for ESTC for seven years, five of which I spent at the Huntington Library supervising the recataloguing of their pre-1641 English books and a bit of their 1641–1700 collection. This [End Page 367] provided the first component of early-book records in ESTC, which had previously concerned itself only with the eighteenth century.4 Since then I have worked with the public in two Anglo-American-oriented rare book libraries. This has put me in the position of having to consult, at least once a day and frequently more often, the file that I helped to build for seven years, and to interpret it to others who often do not understand its history and conventions. The people who come to me for help are mainly academics, but they include antiquarian booksellers, and I also use ESTC to train future rare book librarians in the evaluation of bibliographical evidence both primary and reported. So I have had some chastening experiences of encountering my own cataloguing as an end-user, but also ample opportunities to observe what people want from ESTC.

An increasingly common trend, I am sorry to report, is that more and more people do not want ESTC at all — they want ECCO or EEBO.5 The younger generation of scholars in particular, lured by full-text images and ransacking the Web for illustrations for their books and articles, are using these utilities as de facto bibliographic databases. They find that the stripped-down records and simplified indexes are good enough for their purposes. To a minority of them, the fact that other works, editions, and copies exist outside the Web is irrelevant, and perhaps even irritating. To use a metaphor, some people prefer to explore the world through books of photographs with occasional schematic maps. ESTC, on the other hand, provides the equivalent of a detailed topographic map, but no pictures. Such technical tools have limited appeal, even to some specialists; but if you want to thoroughly learn the lie of the land, you will need one, and the more complete and accurate the better. My comments below about how ESTC is used and perceived should be taken partly in the context of the differences and competition between these two markets — the world of pictures and the world of descriptions. It may be that, in time, a détente will be struck that will allow the unification in one database...