As digital databases become increasingly important to research, so does the recognition by academics of the limitations and bounds of these resources to historical inquiry. This is the apparent motivation behind incentives such as The END (Early Novels Database) Project, which aims to unite ‘twenty-first-century database and search technologies with the sensibility of eighteenth-century indexing practices’ to create a superior bibliographical record for early novels than is currently available through Google Books (etc.). However these sources are accessed, researchers undertaking projects which involve the assessment or quantification of surviving sources will invariably be limited to referring to those items which survive in institutions with recognised historical collections (whether digitally or physically accessible). In the great majority of cases this will mean public libraries, record offices, research libraries or other organisations which maintain established archives – and even within this context there is great scope for making new discoveries and amending the historical record, as can be observed in the excellent work of Arthur der Weduwen, who recently rediscovered Utrecht’s first newspaper
Arthur der Weduwen – Utrecht’s First Newspaper Re-Discovered
A more daunting prospect is to consider the number of items which are entirely unknown to the historical record through private ownership, perhaps only coming to broader attention when offered for sale. To give one example, the recent appearance for sale on eBay of a scarce copy of The Nottingham Mercury for 27 August 1724 acts both as a reminder of the unknown archival record that exists outside of recognised institutional holdings, and a challenge to attempts to definitively quantify known surviving copies of individual publications. This seems a particularly crucial consideration in relation to publications of which very few copies are known to survive. In the case of Nottingham Mercury, the largest collection of issues is located at Nottingham Central Library, which amounts to c. 30 copies, which does not include the issue of 27 August 1724.
In the case of early British newspapers, a previous post on this blog outlined that despite its age, R. M. Wiles’ register of regional newspapers in his Freshest Advices (1965) has yet to be surpassed as a guide (or at least, a starting point) for identifying institutional holdings of early, regional newspapers titles in England, and has not been displaced by British Library initiatives such as the Newsplan project of the 1980s, or the English Short Title Catalogue. Wiles recorded some well-known collections in private hands, but unless these issues have since transferred into publicly accessible collections (Kenneth Monkman’s collections of newspapers, now under the auspices of the Laurence Sterne Trust at Coxwold in North Yorkshire might be one example), their current status can be difficult to trace. These examples act as cautionary reminders to historical researchers that our best efforts to quantify sources always come with a qualification, that our conclusions tacitly exclude the hidden archival record of private ownership.