Youth Is An Arrow, Age Is A Net

President Oden, trustees, faculty, friends, parents and grandparents, and especially Carleton graduates. I’m honored, and touched, and more than a little surprised, to be here.

I’ve been told I have seven minutes to convince you that compiling a bibliography isn’t as boring as you might think, and that bibliographies are and will continue to be useful, even in the age of full-text databases and search engines and Google books.

“Youth is an arrow, age is a net.” I came across that unattributed quotation many years ago. I don’t claim it for a truth universally acknowledged, but I find it to be true of my own experience.

It’s expressed another way in Carleton’s motto, “the pursuit of excellence.” In 1960 Owen Jenkins introduced our pre-freshman class successively to the dialogues of Plato, Aristotle’s Poetics and Rhetoric, Paradise Lost, and Hamlet. It was exhilarating and addictive to confront, for the first time, a single great book. You draw your bow, and then shoot your arrow—you examine it, analyze it, figure out how the author achieved its power.

Bibliography is a very different way of approaching books. You’re still a hunter, but your goal is to track down EVERY SINGLE BOOK for a given time period or language or subject. It’s less like shooting an arrow than like casting a net.

The Wing project’s mission was to describe, and to give at least one location for, every book, pamphlet, broadside ballad, receipt, and lottery ticket—every scrap of printed paper, except for periodicals--published in England or in English from 1641 through 1700—nearly 100,000 items.

At first the idea of spending years on such a project seemed alien to me. Samuel Johnson called lexicographers like himself “harmless drudges.” Bibliographers couldn’t be much different, I thought. Our Carleton mission was to pursue excellence, not mediocrity, certainly not to give Thomas Shadwell’s poetry and plays consideration equal to that of Dryden’s MacFlecknoe, which had ridiculed them.

Yet I knew, and admired, the Wing Catalogue. It covered an exciting sixty years of British history—the English Civil War, the execution of Charles the First, the Great Plague and Great Fire of London. I was intrigued enough to apply for, and to accept, the job.

In his introduction to the first edition of his catalogue Donald Wing had issued an open invitation for someone else to catalogue the weekly and monthly periodicals that proliferated in the mid-to-late seventeenth century. I decided to take advantage of this opportunity to produce a companion volume to Wing, listing and locating British periodicals 1641-1700. I found a co-editor, Matt Seccombe, who was about to leave for England to take up a fellowship at Cambridge. Together we located and catalogued over 30,000 issues of periodicals published during the Wing years.

These were low-tech operations at first. Donald Wing collected his information on three-by-five paper slips, housed in shoeboxes until he had enough to fill a library cabinet. After his death his staff had carried on the practice. We saw no reason not to compile the periodicals catalogue in the same fashion.

The Wing project was soon forced to adapt to the new computer technology or lose its new grant, but the computerization was primitive. We had no computers in our office, only a typewriter. Our typescript was keyed at the publisher’s, into a mainframe database. They sent us back great swathes of green-and-white printout to proofread and annotate. I still have boxes of the old printout in our basement.

The periodicals catalogue was different. Once the data had been collected I keyed it into a spreadsheet, Lotus 1-2-3, with columns for titles, issue numbers, dates, and library locations, supplemented by names of editors and printers. The IT people at the Modern Language Association wrote a complicated program to convert the spreadsheets into a printed volume, published in 1987.

I’ve worked on several other bibliographical projects since then, always using spreadsheets, although I eventually switched to Excel. I find that I can operate on two planes at once, keying titles and first lines and dates on one level and thinking about the subject matter—love, death, literary rivalries, political feuds—on another. I love being able to sort and resort the material alphabetically, or chronologically, or by author, or editor, or printer, or publisher. Under the right circumstances, I think, compiling a bibliography can give entertainment and satisfaction to anyone with an active mind and too much time on his or her hands.

But the bibliographies themselves are only a means to the end of getting a text into the reader’s hand. They’re replaceable or expendable. The printed Wing Catalogue and the British Periodicals Catalogue have been rendered almost obsolete by their absorption into the online English Short-Title Catalogue, and the digitized texts themselves are finding their way into scholars’ studies. Access to most digitized English books printed before 1800 is currently restricted to students, faculty and staff of universities or colleges like Carleton, but Google is making many of them available free on the Internet.

Fortunately for me and for others, though, there are still bibliographies and other kinds of literary databases yet to compile. One current project, funded by the Mellon Foundation, is a catalogue of eighteenth-century periodicals. I’m currently working on a first-line index of poetry in Wing-period books. Another similar project would be a first-line index of printed poetry during the earlier Stuart years, 1603-1640.

Every bibliography, moreover, has the potential of helping along another digitizing project. If Google Books decides to digitize periodicals as well as books, I expect they’ll use our catalogue and the Mellon bibliography as tools. If so, the entire corpus of printed works in English through 1800 may eventually be available on the Web. That would be a treasure-trove that neither Donald Wing, nor Owen Jenkins, nor I, could have imagined when I went away to Carleton in 1960.