Indexes of indexes

Posted by Jenny Batt on Thursday, March 18, 2010 with No comments
James Woolley has recently released an updated version of his index of eighteenth-century indexes, 'Finding English Verse, 1650-1800: First-Line Indexes and Searchable Electronic Texts'. This is the seventh revision of Woolley's remarkable resource, which previously went under the title 'First-Line Indexes of English Verse, 1650-1800: A Checklist'.

In addition to giving the Digital Miscellanies Index a nice plug as a 'forthcoming' work, Woolley offers some sage advice on searching first-line indexes, and on the best ways to search full-text databases. There are over 80 resources described on Woolley's list, ranging from the familuar and accessible, including Early English Books Online, Eighteenth Century Collections Online, and Literature Online (all searchable from your desktop if your library/university has a subscription) to the slightly-more-difficult to access, such as the card indexes scattered across the UK and US.

Woolley's list is split up into three sections, the first on 'Indexes to Manuscript Verse', the second on 'Indexes to Printed Verse', and the third on 'Searchable Electronic Texts'. Woolley give a brief description of each index, and guidance on how best to search it.

A good companion piece to Woolley's index of indexes is Michael Londry's article, 'On the use of first-line indices for researching English poetry of the long eighteenth century, c. 1660-1830, with special reference to women poets' The Library 7th ser. 5.1 (2004) 12-38. Londry shows some of the ways first-line indexes can reveal buried scholarly treasure.

Londry begins with his own summary of first-line indexes to both manuscript and printed material, before going on to show, with respect to several eighteenth century poets, how careful digging in such indexes might enhance our understanding of a poet's publishing and reception history. Londry turns up manuscript and print versions of poems by Anne Wharton, Mary, Lady Chudleigh, Jane Barker, and Charlotte Smith which had escaped the notice of the respective editors of these poets. Finally, Londry shows how the first-line indexes he consulted allowed him to 'uncover a suprising amount of biographical, textual, and critical-reception evidence' related to the early feminist Elizabeth Tollett (1694-1754) (Londry, p. 32).

Incidentally, Londry ends his article by calling for a 'Meta First-Line Index' which linked together a number of major first-line indexes, allowing them all to be searched at the same time. This is something we are now fortunate enough to have, in Carolyn Nelson's Union First-Line Index of Manuscript Poetry, a work that James Woolley describes as 'now the obvious first-resort first-line index for the period 1650-1800' (Woolley, p. 4).