3 things I’ve come to understand about the ESTC

As someone from outside the discipline of English Literature, here are a few things I understand about the ESTC or the English Short Title Catalogue. The first thing is that it’s huge. As Dr. Graban notes in the post below, the archive comprises of close to half a million titles of handpress texts spanning nearly three decades. The second thing I understand is that it’s taken vast numbers of people to bring together this resource: librarians, administrators, scholars of literature, antiquarians, grant writers, the National Endowment for the Humanities among many others. In Daniel Slive’s interview with Henry Snyder, the director of the ESTC since 1978, Snyder credits his background in business, sales and retail as being influential in making it possible for the ESTC to exist. My point being that an undertaking as big as the ESTC required non-scholarly expertise. In other words, it takes a village to create a large scale bibliographic resource and it takes a lot of funds–continual funds. Snyder in his interview also notes that the ESTC is “a project that never seems to end” (84, “Exit Interview: Henry Snyder), and Snyder also states that “ESTC is administrative and political” (75, “Exit Interview: Henry Snyder). Business minds, administrative minds, scholarly minds, information science minds—many different individuals brought the ESTC to life. We often talk about the necessity of collaboration in digital humanities and the ESTC is no exception.

The ESTC requires many, many hands to keep running and it has lasted through multiple waves of data and information technology changes. From entries created by hand to microfiche, to initial databases that were stored on servers that took up entire rooms to current modes of digitization which can be stored on a single computer. Henry Snyder describes the ESTC as a “living, constantly growing and changing organism” and he also states that “sooner or later (and probably sooner), whatever mechanism and system we rely upon today will become passé, and will be supplanted by some ‘rough beast’ not yet imagined” (“The Future of the ESTC: A Vision”). Snyder points to the potential for the ESTC to transform yet again, and that transformation will be negotiated by our information technologies and again, many many people will be required to make that happen.

Finally, the third thing I’ve noticed about the ESTC is again, as Snyder points out above, is that what to do with the ESTC is a political issue. How to number the titles, what date to cut off the catalog at, how to expand the catalog, and how to organize the catalog—all of these considerations are up for extensive debate. In 1981, William Todd describes two schools of thought regarding the organization of the titles in the catalog, “the professional librarians” or “hardheaded realists” and “a motley contingent of scholars” who Todd describes as “softheaded visionaries” (390, “The ESTC as Viewed by Administrators and Scholars“). Not only is organization an issue, but also how the ESTC can be improved. Steven Tabor points to accuracy issues and the absence of information related to the physicality of the texts as areas of potential growth.

Regardless of how much the future of the ESTC can be debated, it seems clear to me that the ESTC is a touchstone for challenges that exist in the digital humanities. Issues of entry, issues of manpower, of funding sources, of management, of information science, of digitization, of primary record issues, of collaboration … the ESTC provides an archival model that we can look to for insight across the disciplines.


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