Billings in Cyberspace: Toward the Electronic Index-Catalogue
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Billings in Cyberspace:
Toward the Electronic Index-Catalogue

In this time of millennial flights of fear and fancy, it seems somehow fitting, at once whimsical and yet strangely inspiriting, to see old stars through new lenses. In this light we may conjure up the picture of sobersided John Shaw Billings, ascending into the ethereal realms of technology that form the basis for this series of essays. Billings’s chief contribution, the Index-Catalogue of the Library of the Surgeon-General’s Office of the United States Army, was a remarkable feat of pluck and determination that, most scholars agree, propelled him into the top rank of nineteenth-century American medical achievement. The task of rendering the Index-Catalogue in electronic form will be essayed shortly and more concretely by a consortium of scholarly organizations including the American Association for the History of Medicine (AAHM), the National Library of Medicine, Allegheny University of the Health Sciences, and a number of branches of the Wellcome enterprise. 1

As a result we may, if fortunate, arrive at a rather delicious irony in what might become part of our next master narrative of American medicine: John Shaw Billings, Civil War surgeon and bibliographer par [End Page 689] excellence, recast as a “computer pioneer.” 2 We shall no doubt come better to know the man and his work, awash in a sea of index cards, as a result of the forthcoming biography by James Cassedy of the National Library of Medicine. 3 Until then, however, we may do well to pause to evaluate his masterwork as a knowledge base in its present and future forms. 4

Just how useful and usable has the “Index-Cat” been? The answer is less obvious than it may appear at first blush. Shortly after its inception circa 1880, Billings’s sixty-volume work certainly came to occupy pride of place, quite unlike any other American work, on the shelves of world medical libraries. Clearly, then, as an object, and as a totem of America’s emerging scientific dominance in the ensuing century, the Index-Cat began early on, and continues, to create an indelible imprint on scholarship. The size of that imprint is reflected in the work’s deployment in actual practice, certainly—perhaps even beyond what its content might deserve. It is safe to say that scholars, myself among them, have (faute de mieux) come to rely on Billings’s run of volumes as a sort of reliable field guide to the collective mentalities of nineteenth-century (and earlier) medical communities.

Whether this reliance was fully warranted has been repeatedly questioned. In a useful volume commemorating the centenary of the Index-Catalogue’s companion work, the original Index Medicus, John Blake raised the issue of the gaps that Billings and his colleagues allowed to creep into their labors. 5 In his percipient chapter on Billings’s bibliographic context, Blake pointed out the overlap—and lack thereof—with the citations in Billings’s own medical thesis on epilepsy. For early-nineteenth-century work, in which his cited materials were more likely to be derived from monographic works, the Index-Cat picked up no more than one-sixth to [End Page 690] one-quarter of Billings’s citations. For references to materials published later in the century, the rate of inclusion improved to as high as perhaps 80–90 percent, as journal articles came to predominate. But I think that part of Blake’s point was nonetheless this: in seeking the most complete list of references, no one should rely on this one (or any other) bibliographic tool in such a way as to exclude thinking about identifying the ones that got away. Yet many of us use the Index-Cat to a fault, employing it as a crutch because it is so good, and inferring a sense of completeness beyond what it will bear. If we are to continue using it in this way, let us use it optimally.

Even if the Index-Catalogue is incomplete, it is worth preserving and improving, to make it both usable and user-friendly. On the shelves of many libraries, its volumes are being crowded out. Perhaps worse, they...