English Short-Title Catalogue (Spring 2008 Trust Magazine briefing)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

04/30/2008 - 2006 might be remembered for a number of things, but for a certain band of scholars and bibliophiles, it marks an important year of access—when the English Short-Title Catalogue (ESTC) was made available free on the Web.

Most people would consider the ESTC an esoteric venture, but within its circle it is a major achievement. It is a bibliography of printed material: books, pamphlets, newspapers, serials, advertisements, broadside ballads, election handbills and various ephemera.

The ESTC begins in 1473, when letterpress printing began in the British Isles, and ends in 1800. It lists items printed in any language in Great Britain and North America and items printed in English anywhere else in the world. It contains more than 460,000 entries from the British Library and some 2,000 other libraries and is updated daily.

Compilation began in the 1970s, with the goal of covering 1701 through 1800 (E in ESTC then stood for “Eighteenth Century”). That initiative (with a machine-readable text) was completed in the early 1980s; Pew lent support in that decade.

As any good archivist knows, however, one good thing leads to another. The database was extended back in time, and it incorporated hardbound short-title catalogues of years prior to 1701. And access followed the march of technology. The ESTC was put on CD-ROMs in the late 1990s and then on the Internet. It was available through paid subscription until two years ago, when access was granted to all. The database can be found at http://estc.bl.uk.

With free Web access, says Henry L. Snyder, Ph.D., “the ESTC not only realizes the vision projected for it by its creators but far exceeds it.”

Snyder, now an emeritus professor of history at the University of California at Riverside, directed the North American part of the project from its start. Last November, he received a National Humanities Medal for his role in preserving the written word in this and other endeavors. He is credited with changing how scholarship is done.

“When I started, I spent most of my time looking for this stuff,” he told a southern California newspaper of the material in the ESTC. “Now, I spend my time reading it.”

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