Massive project catalogs four centuries of printing
Based at UCR, it targets British Empire writings from 1473 to 1800

By Pat Murkland © 2000
The Riverside Press-Enterprise

London's winter was fierce in 1740.

Even the Thames River froze over. An enterprising printer slid a press onto the ice and sold souvenir poems, hand-setting type and printing a customer's name on each.

But when Martha Powell walked on the frozen waters on Feb. 13, she carried away more than a souvenir of icy marvels. She had bought a share of immortality.

Some 260 years later the verse printed with Powell's name is listed among more than 460,000 published works in an international database housed at UC Riverside. Many Inland residents never have heard of UCR's English Short Title Catalogue project. Yet the database has dazzled scholars around the world with its powers to discover new chapters in history.

Workers have been toiling for about 22 years to catalog in detail every publication in the British Empire during four centuries, the era of hand-set presses from the start of printing in 1473 through 1800.

The result is a souped-up search engine, an electronic tool that researchers never had before.

By many accounts the database is transforming the ways people study printed words that are the bedrock of English-speaking cultures, literature and history.

And the English Short Title Catalogue has received a tall order of support: at least $30 million over 22 years, project director Henry Snyder estimates.

Snyder moved the project to UCR when he came from Louisiana State University in 1986. He'd already spent seven or so years immersed in the catalog and some workers moved from Louisiana to the Inland area to stay with the project.

The British Library in London, which started the computer catalog in 1978, remains partners with UCR and the American Antiquarian Society. The Huntington Library near Pasadena is one of the libraries, museums and archives around the world that have devoted staff time or given box loads of information.

In the project's 14 years at UCR, the federal government, private foundations and trusts have kicked in more than $12 million in grants. That includes the latest $243,000 in Aprilfrom the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The works themselves are not at UCR. The information about them is.

That includes everything from heavy tomes explaining the universe to a 1585 bookplate that says in Latin, "This book belongs to Edmund Grindal."

When libraries and archives have lacked the resources to send in information, UCR workers have traveled to libraries in England, Ireland and other areas to hunt for printed works.

Snyder keeps a rapid pace from his home near Berkeley, traveling to meet with librarians around the world.

"It's very, very exciting and we're just constantly finding things," he said with his trademark nonstop enthusiasm. Along with the Short Title Catalogue, he supervises a UC project that is cataloging and microfilming old California newspapers.

Snyder, 70, is planning to retire in 2001 -- at least officially. "I'll volunteer as long as they'll have me," he said recently as he planned meetings in the coming months in Washington, D.C., Chicago, Moscow and Berlin.

In a room at UCR's Olmsted Hall, his successor, UCR history professor Tom Cogswell, pointed to a container that looks like a plastic milk carton.

It's a database server. It's building information about every newspaper, book, broadsheet, ballad, tract, sermon, pamphlet, government proclamation, advertisement, recipe and other printed pieces of paper from England and its dependencies during the hand-press era.

Cogswell explained why the database matters.

During the days when printed words were the means of communicating in the English-speaking world, hand-set presses gave books variations each time they printed one, he said.

So, a scholar exploring the works of John Milton, for example, has to find existing copies of all publications before sorting out anything else.

The few printed bibliographies have outdated, incomplete or incorrect information, Cogswell said.

That often could mislead historians -- and the history they write.

"The advantage of a database," he said, "is it's infinitely expandable and instantly correctable. . . . It helps lay out everything we know about this."

The database speeds scholars light-years ahead in their research by telling where to find each work and describing vital details. It also gives many new ways to find and sort information, Cogswell said.

"It's all about getting across to this huge pile of stuff."

People can use the database at libraries at any UC campus, through the California Digital Library. The Research Libraries Group, an international not-for-profit alliance of libraries and universities, offers Internet subscriptions to institutions around the world.

"In the old days," Snyder said, "you spent all your time hunting for the stuff." No one had even tried to chart what hand-set presses had printed in the 100 years or so past 1700, he said.

Now with a couple computer key strokes, a record like Martha Powell's poem becomes a ticket to instant time travel.

A quick database search, for example, yields other visions of early ice-top publishing. Records include:

· A map from 1683-4 displaying all the booths on the Thames River ice.

· A verse that begins, "Behold the liquid Thames now frozen o'er," possibly from 1739-40, the same winter Martha Powell bought her souvenir.

· A four-line song from 1789 printed on the ice "opposite St. Catharine's-Stairs."

As history graduate student Lesley Doig worked recently on records for newspapers and other serials, she said, "It's a good thing they don't have all the material, otherwise I'd be stopping to read it all."

Several doors down, database worker Ginger Schilling was holding a photocopy of a 1600s title page and looking for a match in the database. As she entered the record, one could imagine the mischief that William Whitwood, "next door to the Crown Tavern in Duck Lane," might have been experiencing in 1686 London to commission a printing of "The Lives and Actions of Several Notorious Counterfeits."

The record of his book joined publications that are in more than 2 million archives around the world, assistant director John Bloomberg-Rissman said.

And the database workers are seeing an end -- sort of. In three to four years, they expect to finish entering most records, Bloomberg-Rissman said. From then on, they will add any new discoveries and correct and improve the rest.

The database contains the essence of Western tradition, he said. "Every time you turn on your TV and some politician is speaking, it's in here. It's the basis of everything."

Pat Murkland can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at (909) 782-7575.


Jay Racz / The Press-Enterprise

Ornate illustrations and text appear on the title page of a 1728 history of the West Indies called Historia General De Las Indias Occidentales.

Jay Racz / The Press-Enterprise

Standing in the Special Collections Library at UCR are, from left, Henry Snyder, English Short Title Catalogue database director who will retire in 2001; Tom Cogswell, a UCR history professor who is Synder's successor, and assistant director John Bloomberg-Rissman.

Published 5/1/2000