The impetus for systematic bibliographies of British history came from the concern for a more scientific approach to the discipline of historical research. But Britain was behind Europe and North America in getting the project underway. The Germans in particular had laid down the gauntlet with the Jahresberichte der Geschichtswissenschaft(1) and its antecedents published from 1878. It was perhaps significant that the pioneer of bibliographies of British history was an assistant professor at Harvard, Charles Gross (1857–1909), who had studied at Leipzig, Berlin and Paris, and took his PhD from Göttingen in 1883. He was responsible for a Bibliography of British Municipal History,(2) and the influential Sources and Literature of English History from the Earliest Times to about 1485.(3) The product of a course of lectures on British history, his bibliography of medieval history provided 'a systematic survey of the printed materials relating to the political, constitutional, legal, social, and economic history of England, Wales and Ireland to 1485'.(4)
Gross's initiative focused the concerns of those who appreciated the need for critical bibliographies in other periods. Two men were particularly influential. Henry Richard Tedder (1850–1924) was the librarian of the Athenaeum, who in a lecture of 1885 to the Library Association at Plymouth had taken the subject of 'Proposals for a bibliography of national history'. He became a fellow of the Royal Historical Society (RHS) in 1902, and served as treasurer from 1904 until 1924. Tedder's bibliographic interests meshed with those of Sir George Prothero (1848–1922), former professor of history at Edinburgh, and since 1899 editor of the London Quarterly Review, who was president of the Society from 1901 until 1905.
Prothero had studied in Germany, admired Ranke, and stood for a more scientific approach to the discipline. He dedicated the bulk of his presidential address of 19 February 1903 to a call for a systematic bibliography of the history of the British Isles. Drawing unfavourable comparisons with the Germans, he suggested that the Englishman was characterised by a 'muddle through' philosophy, but 'of the higher practicality, which consists in forethought, preparation, system, the qualities which make for national efficiency, he has, I fear, but a very small share'. He noted that 'in this matter of bibliographies we are, as a nation, amazingly badly off', and it was a matter of reproach that the largest listing of works on British history was contained in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, while the pioneer Charles Gross was an American, an 'ornament of Harvard'.(5)
Prothero mobilised other luminaries of the RHS like the 17th-century historian Sir Charles Firth, but it was really the American Historical Association that drove it forward. At its meeting at Richmond, Virginia on 30 December 1908 the Association heard proposals for a general bibliography of modern British history, and a committee under the chairmanship of the Tudor historian E. P. Cheyney was appointed. The RHS followed suit in 1909, appointing a committee chaired by Prothero, and including Firth and Tedder, to build up an Anglo-American co-operation. It was decided that there should be one volume of general bibliography, and that the period – specific works on British history since 1485 should be covered in two volumes with a break date at 1714, designed to complement Gross's existing work. Some progress was made before the First World War; Prothero was appointed general editor, funds were raised by subscription, and a publisher was found. But the war diverted energies and although Prothero was still working on the project shortly before his death in 1922, there was little concrete yet to show. In 1923 the scheme was scaled back; the general volume was abandoned, and the plans for the 18th- and 19th-century volume shelved; and it was agreed that the American and British teams should take on separate responsibility for volumes respectively in the Tudor and Stuart periods.
In the determination to show something for all the investment of time, the Stuart volume under the editorship of Godfrey Davies, a former pupil of Firth, was rushed out, probably too soon, appearing in 1928.(6) The reception was pretty critical. Reviewers pounced on the omissions and criticised the organisation of entries under the sub headings by date of publication which had the effect of separating material on related subjects. Some lessons were learned by Conyers Read whose Tudor volume received a warmer reception.(7)
Prothero's bequest of the bulk of his estate and the enthusiasm of F. M. Powicke, a reforming president, enabled the Society (with the co-operation of the Institute of Historical Research (IHR)) to embark in 1934 on a new project, the annual listing of publications on British history, modelled on American, French and German exemplars. The first volume, covering the Writings on British History of 1934,(8) appeared three years later. This and the next two volumes were compiled by Alexander ('Jock') Taylor Milne, then junior librarian of the Society, and later secretary and librarian of the Institute, but progress was interrupted by his wartime service.
Volumes appeared only fitfully after the war, and by 1960 the backlog of unlisted publications dated back to 1945. Driving the project forwards was Hugh Hale Bellot (1890–1966), secretary (1934–52) and later president (1952–6) of the RHS. It was Bellot who secured money from the Ford Foundation in 1956 to compile a retrospective listing of the Writings of 1901–33, which finally appeared in five volumes in 1968–70.(9) This funding also enabled the Society to revive work on the critical select bibliographies initiated in 1909, and new volumes were commissioned from 1956 onwards. In 1965 the IHR formally took on responsibility for the Writings, and from 1973 until 1986 a succession of volumes brought their coverage forwards from 1945 to 1974.(10)
One of the problems with the Writings was that they were not current, and because of the scale of the unindexed backlog it was very much a catch-up exercise. One of Geoffrey Elton's pet projects, as president of the RHS (1973–6), was the production of annual listings of publications to appear within nine months of the year in which they were published, and this was implemented with the Annual Bibliographies.(11) Volumes covering the publications of each year from 1975 to 2002 and mobilising a number of specialist academic 'section editors' appeared according to Elton's scheme: his personal commitment is evident in the fact that the text for the early volumes was produced on his own typewriter. The Annuals were at first designed to trade something of the Writings comprehensiveness for greater topicality, but they grew in volume, reflecting the increase in historical output as well as the compilers' more liberal approach to the interdisciplinary margins; the numbers of items indexed rose from 2,033 in 1975 to 3,677 in 1989, 6,764 in 1997 and 11,237 in 2002.
Something of a turning point in British historical bibliography was reached in the later 1980s. In 1986, with the publication of Writings for 1973–4, the Institute's librarians had caught up with the Society's Annuals; there now existed listings of publications on British history for the period since 1901. Meanwhile the door-stopping critical survey bibliographies had finally borne fruit. Read had updated his Tudor volume in 1959,(12) Mary Keeler addressed many of the deficiencies of Godfrey Davies's in a new Stuart volume of 1970,(13) and further volumes by Edgar B. Graves,(14) H. J. Hanham,(15) and Lucy Brown and Ian Christie(16) brought the series close to completion. Only the 20th century was outstanding; that had to wait until 1996 when Keith Robbins's massive volume (27,000 entries) on the period 1914–89 appeared.(17)
But the problem with all this bibliographical information was its dispersal across a variety of volumes, and its different levels of indexing, particularly at subject level. The next stage was to produce an omnium-gatherum of the varying sources of bibliographical information, Writings, Annuals and British History Bibliographies. In 1989 the Society, taking advantage of the changing technologies, took the decision to create a searchable database, and over the next few years secured funding from the Leverhulme Trust and the British Academy.
The contents of the underlying bibliographies were scanned, gaps in coverage (notably in imperial and commonwealth history, women's history and Roman history) identified and plugged, and the resulting bulky print-outs sent out to an army of scholars (including many North Americans) who checked the information, and added indexing terms, including the period covered. John Morrill, the project's mastermind and general editor, described it as 'an extraordinary modern example of what the early modern period would have called the putting out system'. Their collective labours bore fruit in the eventual publication of a CD-ROM by Oxford University Press in 1998, allowing the complex searching of around 250,000 records on British history from 1900 until 1992.
The static character of the CD-ROM, the greater flexibility of the web and the prospect of new funding opportunities shaped the next phase. Many lessons had been learned from the creation of the CD-ROM, including the importance of consistent subject indexing. Under a new general editor, Julian Hoppit, a standardised thesaurus of indexing terms was devised by Peter Salt, and the decision was taken to edit the data in ADLIB software. The cusp of the new century was a good time for public funding of electronic projects; following initial support from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation and the Esmée Fairbairn Trust, the Arts and Humanities Research Board (AHRB) and its successor the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) provided three consecutive Resource Enhancement grants (2001–9) to enable the bibliography to be available on the internet free at the point of use, and to develop interoperability with other resources.
Under Ian Archer as general editor since 1999 the project, now firmly based in the Institute of Historical Research, developed successful collaborations with London's Past Online (the creation of Heather Creaton, who had been involved with the volumes of Writings produced between 1977 and 1986) and Irish History Online (run by Professor Jacqueline Hill and based at the National University of Ireland in Maynooth). Important additional features are cross-searchability with resources like the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB), linkage to library catalogues and online text through OpenURL technology, and Z39.50 compatibility, enabling the querying of the bibliography by bibliographical software packages such as EndNote. In the six years between going live in July 2002 and July 2008 the database grew in size from around 300,000 to 446,000 records.
'To compile a bibliography is a service to learning; to publish it is to give hostages to public ingratitude'. So remarked J. P. Cooper, reviewing Keeler's Bibliography of Stuart History in English Historical Review for 1974.(18) Today's online resource is very different from the hard-copy volumes it replaces in terms of the speed and flexibility of searching, but it remains just as vulnerable to criticisms about coverage (both for missing important things and including trivia), and it is subject to new challenges. Users demand ever more rapid updating; interoperability requires high levels of accuracy and consistency with standards in cataloguing, including the use of ISBN numbers; successful subject searching requires consistency of indexing.
Maintaining these standards and keeping the resource current does not come cheap, and in a changing environment of public sector and charitable support ('sustainability' poses peculiar challenges for resources like bibliographies whose value depends on their being up-to-date), the funding issues are as acute as they have ever been. The story of bibliographies of British history has at times shown signs of that 'muddle through' character castigated by Prothero in 1902, but it has also demonstrated the fruits of long-standing co-operation between the IHR, the RHS and the wider community of scholars of British history both in Britain and North America.
Dr Ian W. Archer is a tutor in modern history at Oxford, and has been the general editor of the Royal Historical Society Bibliography since January 1999.