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I am Professor of Digital Humanities at the University of Glasgow and Theme Leader Fellow for the 'Digital Transformations' strategic theme of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. I tweet as @ajprescott.

This blog is a riff on digital humanities. A riff is a repeated phrase in music, used by analogy to describe a improvisation or commentary. In the 16th century, the word 'riff' meant a rift; Speed describes riffs in the earth shooting out flames. The poet Jeffrey Robinson points out that riff perhaps derives from riffle, to make rough.

Maybe we need to explore these other meanings of riff in thinking about digital humanities, and seek out rough and broken ground in the digital terrain.

8 October 2011

Robin Alston's Library History Database

I was sad to learn in July this year of the death of my old friend and mentor from British Library days, Robin Alston. Robin's achievements as a bibliographer were innumerable and fundamental to our present digital environment. In particular, I would single out his role as a driving force behind the creation of the English Short Title Catalogue. The availability of the ESTC has underpinned the development of such key digital resources as Early English Books Online and Eighteenth-Century Collections Online. Robin was a constant source of inspiration in developing new projects and ideas; it was his early experiments with a Mekel Microfilm scanner which led ultimately to the British Library's recent on-line presentation of the Burney collection of newspapers of the seventeenth- and eighteenth centuries. There's a wonderfully written obituary of Robin by Stephen Green available here.

Among Robin's projects from 1991 was the creation of a huge database of references to libraries in Great Britain to 1850. In compiling the Library History Database, Robin consulted over 1,500 published works and found references to over 30,000 libraries. Robin commented that 'Cultural historians have under-estimated the number of libraries available for reading, whether for entertainment or for self-improvement. As the data presented here demonstrates there was provision of print in almost every market town in the British Isles by the year 1820, and by 1850 in hundreds of villages with a population of less than 500 souls. The sheer variety of libraries so far discovered is quite extraordinary: libraries devoted to the arts and sciences; libraries in the workplace; libraries on omnibuses; libraries in inns; libraries on the estates of wealthy landowners provided for the workers; libraries associated with every type of society; village libraries provided by benevolent pastors'.

Robin generously made his database available on his personal website and it has been an indispensable resource for me ever since it appeared. It is planned to transfer the database to the web servers of the Institute of English Studies in the School of Advanced Study at the University of London, but this process appears to have taken some time, and earlier this year Robin's own site became unavailable, so that for some time it has not been possible to access the database directly.

However, fortunately the information on Robin's own website can be recovered from the Wayback Machine. Care has to be taken in using these archived copies, since the Wayback Machine snapshots do not always give the complete listing. These pdfs give the fullest version of the indexes to the Library History database posted by Robin on his website. The date of the Wayback Machine archived version used is given in brackets.

Robin's introduction to the project is available here. There are lists of libraries as follows: England (8 July 2006); Scotland (19 July 2006); Wales (8 July 2006); Ireland (excluding Dublin) (8 July 2009); Dublin (4 May 2009); Islands (4 May 2009). There is a consolidated index of places (20 July 2005). A breakdown of societies listed in the database (4 Jan. 2006) and some summary statistics (12 Oct. 2007) are also available. Finally, there is a consolidated list of sources used in compiling the database.

Robin was also in the process of producing a pioneering database of country house libraries. He wrote that 'The Country House Database represents a first attempt at listing country houses in the British Isles from the late medieval period to ca. 1850, together with an index to all the families so far traced as having occupied them. Certain types of house have been omitted (for fairly obvious reasons): Episcopal and Royal Palaces (some notable exceptions);Large vicarages (known to have contained libraries throughout their history); Castles with little history beyond the Civil War; Houses abandoned by the middle of the seventeenth century; Ecclesiastical buildings destroyed in the Dissolution; Houses for which no adequate evidence could be established regarding historical ownership; Houses which for most of their history were let rather than sold; Large farm houses. Some idea of the extent of these exclusions may be gathered by the fact that I have had to relegate to a subsidiary file over 1,000 houses. In the period between the first county directories (ca. 1820) and 1850 over 10,000 residences belonging to the gentry and minor aristocracy have been identified, but with negligible evidence for their history. While a fair proportion of these have survived, and are noted in Pevsner's monumental series of volumes covering buildings in the British Isles, almost nothing is known about the families that occupied them. Where possible I have included the names of well-known owners; details regarding the libraries (where any are known); dates when libraries were sold; demolition or destruction by fire; references to the considerable number of studies of country houses (national, county, local), particularly sources, like Campbell, Neale, or Morris, which have illustrations; rebuilding, remodelling, and enlarging'.

The following are the listings, as preserved in the Wayback Machine, of the Country House Database in England (1 Feb. 2009), Scotland (1 Jan. 2009), Wales (1 Jan. 2009), Ireland (1 Jan. 2009) and the Islands (1 Jan. 2009).

On sources for the Country House Database, Robin wrote that: 'In order to keep entries as brief as possible most sources are given abbreviated reference, but there is a full list of the large number of sources on which the database has been built. These include older (but indispensable) national sources such as J.B. Burke's Visitation (1852-55); early guide books and directories; county and town histories; modern national and county surveys; all the volumes of the Victoria County History which have published volumes dealing with manorial history; accounts by contemporary travelers (from Leland to Cromwell); articles in Country Life; brief histories of houses, frequently published privately and difficult to locate; estate sale catalogues (the best collection is in the Cambridge University Library); auction sale records. The best collection of works, including rare pamphlets, is in the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I had originally intended to list family histories, but keeping up with genealogical literature is quite impossible for a single labourer in the vineyard! Recent publications on historic buildings can be found at the English Heritage site. A number of the larger country houses now have promotional websites, but these generally do not provide any useful information about their libraries or owners'.

On the family index to the Country House database, Robin commented that 'This index contains over 7,000 records for families identified with the 4,000+ houses listed. In cases where a house had numerous owners, some for only a brief period, I have compromised historical completeness by listing only the most important owners. One important discovery of my researches concerns the number of houses owned by a single family during the period covered: a staggering 2,194. The number of houses with just two owners is 1007. For published family histories T.R. Thomson's A Catalogue of British Family Histories (London, Society of Genealogists, 1980) is invaluable. For the aristocracy the standard works by Burke, O'Hart, Doyle, Douglas, and the 12 volume Complete Peerage (London, 1910-53) contain vast amounts of accurate information'.

As part of the work on the Country House Database, Robin was also compiling a list of private owners of books, and his preliminary findings as preserved in the Wayback Machine can be seen here (1 Jan. 2009). In connection with this work, Robin also compiled a preliminary list of members of the Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries.

Postscript (26 August 2013):

Here's another obituary of Robin. I think the importance of Robin's pioneering work in laying rthe groundwork for some of the most important online digital resources in the humanities is one that needs to be constantly reiterated:

Robin Carfrae Alston was born in 1933 in Trinidad, to a family in the shipping business. He was educated at Rugby School and at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. After further studies in Oxford he secured a teaching fellowship in Toronto. There, in the exhilarating early days of Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan, Alston was, in 1956-58, able to define his mission and envisage his magnum opus. He proposed revising and extending the early modern English materials of Kennedy's A Bibliography of Writings on the English Language from the Beginning of Printing to the End of 1922 (1927), an ambitious project which resulted in the 20-plus volumes of A Bibliography of the English Language from the Invention of Printing to the Year 1800 (BEL). He moved to King's College London to work on his PhD, an examination of English spelling reform in the 16th and 17th centuries -- the first step towards BEL. Working in the British Library, under the superintendency of Howard Nixon, stimulated fellowship with bibliographical heavyweights -- W. A. Jackson (from Harvard) and Bernhard Fabian (Munster) -- and encouraged him to trawl collections of English material throughout Europe and North America.
BEL was a gargantuan undertaking. Alston embarked on exhaustive bibliographical field-work that ranged across the humanities from philosophy to the history of law. The learned presses (OUP, CUP) fought shy of the prospect.
Self-publishing brought him complementary careers as businessman and technological entrepreneur. Appointed to a teaching post in English language in Leeds in 1964 -- where he is remembered as a stimulating lecturer -- Alston launched the Scolar Press, the first of his publishing ventures, providing cheap facsimile reprints of early English language texts aimed at advanced students, a pioneering operation, for which he invented the Prismascope device for photographing fragile books. In 1973, with the founding of the Janis Press, he turned to experimental lithographic printing.
With the foundation of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the US in 1965 the search for suitable large research projects eventually led the British Library (BL) to develop an English-language 18th-century short-title catalogue, following on the smaller manual Short-Title Catalogues 1475-1640 (STC) and 1641-1700 (Wing). Knowing Alston's unusual combination of sophisticated archival experience with business and technological nous, Nixon's successor, Ian Willison, arranged for Alston, as consultant to D.T. Richnell (BL director general) to develop the epoch-making, computerised Anglo-American Eighteenth-Century Short Title Catalogue project, followed by full-text commercial microfilming.
When its administrative and financial base moved to the US it was expanded as the English Short-Title Catalogue (1475-1800) under the direction of the equally entrepreneurial Henry Snyder, and became a stepping-stone towards the world digital archive.
Alston's status as BL consultant later proved an inadequate base for further innovation, though he compiled various important BL finding aids and initiated seminars introducing researchers to the growing resources of the internet.
He moved on in 1990 to become Professor of Library Studies in the University of London at UCL, and initiated in 1995 the first MA in the History of the Book, based in the university's Institute of English Studies, and The Cambridge History of Libraries in Britain and Ireland. On retirement in 1998 he became an honorary senior research fellow of the institute. Among other honours, he was appointed OBE "for services to bibliography" (1992) and an Hon DLitt of the University (2005).
Alston's work was a milestone in the development of digital scholarship and in the examination of what he called the "universe of collections". Essentially a pathfinder, he had set about exploring the role of BEL across the humanities as a whole. He did not live to complete this investigation but he left a global agenda for historical linguistics with major research libraries and associated faculty such as the BL and the School of Advanced Study, London constituting "centres of synthesis". That is Alston's legacy to his many admirers and students.
Alston married first Joanna Ormiston (marriage dissolved 1996), second Janet Pedley-King (dissolved 1999) and thirdly Conceicao Neves da Silva Colella, who survives him, along with a son and a daughter.
Professor Robin Alston, OBE, scholar and bibliographer, was born on January 29, 1933. He died on June 29, 2011, aged 78


  • Annette Strauch says:
    13 October 2011 at 01:47

    Good index to country houses in Wales. I had not seen the library database before, only the country house one. You must be very happy to have known Robin Alston. A very enjoyable post indeed!

  • Unknown says:
    25 January 2014 at 09:54

    I am from Brazil..where Alston have been last time, until his death. I have the previlege to have been knowing him... become his and Conceição friend, until his last days. I always helped him to fix his computers...God Bless you Robin Alston.

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