Finding early modern books in the Google era

February 4, 2013

In the digital age, traditional library catalogues are developing into something very different, and it has been argued that they will disappear altogether as users call for more general systems of resource discovery. Oxford’s SOLO is part of a general trend that calls for critical understanding and analysis. The CEMS session brought Wolfram Horstmann, Associate Director for Digital Library Programmes and Information Technologies at the Bodleian Libraries, and other members of the Bodleian staff together with graduate students and faculty members specializing in the early modern period.


All recognized the opportunities offered by new search facilities, with the ongoing process of bringing on new copy data and new materials such as maps. Research was in many ways much easier than in the days of the heavy catalogue volumes containing fluttering strips of paper inscribed in an arcane copperplate handwriting. It was nevertheless the case that the huge range of levels and types of cataloguing on the system meant that even experienced users might fail to locate books in the library. The discussion raised some points which are of special concern to early modernists: (1) It is dangerous to base policies specific to Oxford, with its unique history, its reading-heavy undergraduate courses and very strong concentration of scholars actively working on the history of the book, on the kinds of general analysis of global trends, of which a recent sample was given. It was clear that SOLO, which aims to follow those trends, had needed extensive and ongoing revision to meet the needs of local users, as was indicated by the supplementary research aids on searching for early modern books that it had been necessary to provide. (2) With the merging of catalogues compiled by professional staff into ever larger compilations of information, it is becoming harder to discover and verify the sources of that information. For example, the equation of digital with print materials may elide important differences in their accuracy, particularly where the economics of digital publication may lead to less care over accuracy than with print versions. (3) The desire to satisfy the demands of readers who want never to spend more time on their research than a few Google clicks works against the legitimate goals of educators, and cuts out the valuable role of library as well as academic staff in helping that process of critical scrutiny. (4) The loss of browsing facilities in online catalogues is related to the loss of an understanding of the value of reading rooms as displaying a coherent view of a field of knowledge rather than a set of atomized fragments. (5) As the new resource discovery systems try to cram in more and more, they may lose the value of more focussed and limited cataloguing systems.


The Bodleian pre-1920 catalogue, showing at a glance books with a Seld. shelfmark – something not currently possible on SOLO

Several concrete points emerged. Different forms of search including better browsing facilities were still under review. Librarians should publicize, and researchers be aware of, the wide variety of research resources available, from the pre-1920 catalogue in its online and printout versions to the printed incunabula catalogue, also available in digitized form, to the range of resources provided by the still-developing Special Collections website (and on the CEMS website). It was noted that the Bodleian still holds a large number of microfilm collections which are the only access to many archives that have not been digitized, but which are now extremely hard to locate. For all its value, a gateway like SOLO flattens and homogenizes different sources of information, and it offers most to those who understand the range of sources on which it is based. And it can crash and become inaccessible – at which point it would be helpful to publicize the existence of the pre-1920 catalogue as an alternative for some readers.

Last year some serious concerns were raised, particularly from those in the humanities, about current trends in library policies. We were particularly pleased that Dr Horstmann and his colleagues were so generous with their time in discussing one area of concern. It is clear that this may indeed be a minority interest, and that many Oxford colleagues wish to push in quite different directions; but since the broad-grained opinion surveys on which current consultations tend to be based effectively exclude such questions from the beginning, there is all the more need for such close and specific discussion.

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