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John Morrill and the Bibliography of British and Irish History


The opening lecture of this year’s IHR Winter Conference will be delivered by John Morrill, retired Professor of British and Irish History in the University of Cambridge – the theme of the conference is “Civil Wars” and John’s lecture will consider “The English Revolution as a Civil War”. To mark this event, I was asked to write something about John, and in particular his connection with the Bibliography of British and Irish History (BBIH), with which I have myself been involved since 1992.

The current online BBIH has its roots in the desire of the Royal Historical Society in the late 1980s to consolidate and update the various printed bibliographies of British and Irish history, amounting at that time to over 40 volumes, which had been produced by the Society and the Institute of Historical Research since the 1930s. The plan that emerged was for a project that would run from 1990 to 1995, and would result in the publication of the complete database (which would be as comprehensive as possible) on CD-ROM, with a series of select bibliographies appearing in print. As John himself observed in the introduction to the published CD-ROM, “No nation or state has hitherto attempted any such guide to historical writing about itself, and no other discipline has attempted such a synthesis of its accumulated scholarship.”[1]

The majority of the printed volumes which were consolidated into the 1998 CD-ROM edition of the bibliography (bottom right). The volumes with white labels are the copies that were scanned to produce the electronic data. View larger version.

In the establishment of all this, John was a driving force, recommending that the project should not seek simply to produce new printed volumes but should embrace electronic technology, finding funding (principally from the Leverhulme Trust), and even obtaining, from a colleague in Cambridge, the advice that resulted in the purchase of the MicroVAX 3100 on which the data was compiled (the machine still exists in the Cambridge Computer Museum.)[2] John became the project’s General Editor, assembling an advisory board whose first meeting, over an exceptionally hot couple of days in Cambridge, was said to have put the project’s entire expenses budget in jeopardy thanks to its copious mineral water consumption. Steps were taken to improve coverage in areas which it was felt had been under-represented in some of the printed bibliographies – Irish history, the history of the empire and Commonwealth, and the history of women.

The editorial process built upon the model established by Geoffrey Elton for the Royal Historical Society’s Annual Bibliography of British and Irish History in the 1970s – draft entries would be sent to a team of academic editors who would check details, add indexing, and suggest any additional items that ought to be included (John had, indeed, been one of the Annual Bibliography‘s academic editors for several years). Modifying this process to handle a large cumulative bibliography over a relatively short period involved, over the life of the project, recruiting and managing some 200 scholars (including several in the USA and Australia), a process that John likened to an academic “corvée”. Recruitment and management of this workforce was largely delegated to “volume editors”, each responsible for the team working on a particular period, but John was perhaps one of the few people who could have co-ordinated this exercise; thanks to his personal and academic generosity and sociability, he possessed much goodwill on which to draw. Despite this, it turned out that the ability of university teachers to contribute to the project had been over-estimated – they found the pressures on their time increasing during the 1990s and, in the UK, the Research Assessment Exercises did not make any allowance for work on long-term collaborative projects, obliging many to concentrate on their own publications.

The CD-ROM edition of the bibliography, published in 1998, with the manual open at a typical page. View larger version.

Other problems emerged. The electronic scanning of the printed texts, carried out by Papworth Industries at an early stage in the development of this technology, proved less accurate than expected – or, at least, levels of error that sounded acceptable when expressed as a percentage of the characters involved were soon seen to be significant (I recall ‘The Martello towers of Romney Marsh’ being mutated into ‘The Martello tourers of Romsey Marsh’). The amount of work which would have to be done by the project’s central editorial team was likely to overwhelm the one and two-thirds staff who had been appointed, even though a considerable amount of “hands-on” editorial work was done by John himself and by the project’s Executive Secretary, Julian Hoppit. As a result, while the “academic corvée” contributed an enormous amount, the life of the central office had to be extended by a year, and much work had to be put into the hands of paid research assistants. This in turn meant raising more money, in which John again played a leading part – ultimately, the project involved eighteen grant applications, of which sixteen were successful. The printed selections, which depended most on the judgement of the academic editors, never appeared, except for the volume on imperial, colonial and Commonwealth history edited by Andrew Porter.[3] On the other hand, it was recognized that, logically, the project had no end, and money was raised to set up a successor project to continue the work of revising the database and updating it with new publications. So, the publication of The Royal Historical Society Bibliography on CD-ROM: the history of Britain, Ireland, and the British overseas by Oxford University Press in 1998, containing around a quarter of a million entries, proved to be, not the end of the process, but the start of a new era; by the time of its publication the successor project was already underway – reflecting the changing landscape of reference publishing, it soon decided to publish future editions online and eventually evolved into BBIH. It had been decided that the successor project would be most appropriately based in the IHR and John’s direct involvement ceased at this point – but not before he had played a large part in designing the successor project and raising seed funding for it; in an interview conducted in 2008 he said that he thought that the bibliography was his “proudest achievement”[4] and I can testify that he continues to take an avuncular interest in it.

I recall the late Kevin Sharpe observing that, after a conference or similar meeting, John would sit in the bar talking all evening “like the rest of us” but, when the bar closed, John did not go straight to bed like his colleagues but would do a few more hours’ work first. Indeed, while serving as General Editor of the bibliography, John still found the time and energy to serve as Vice-Master of his Cambridge college, to lecture in the University, to supervise research students, and to continue to publish on his own research interests – of the 117 items by John currently listed by BBIH, 37 were published in 1990-6, while John was General Editor of the bibliography. Seven of these 37 were collections of essays edited (or co-edited) by John, a further reflection of his skill in bringing historians together in co-operative projects. Indeed, since John’s active involvement with the bibliography ceased at the end of 1996, this skill has been deployed, alongside his scholarly insight into the 17th century, as a Consultant Editor for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (dealing with over 6,000 17th-century lives), as one of three senior scholars who managed the preparation of an online edition of the depositions of witnesses to the massacres in Ireland in 1641, and now as General Editor of a project to produce a new edition of all the recorded words of Oliver Cromwell (covering both his written works and his recorded speeches) which is currently nearing completion.

[1] The Royal Historical Society Bibliography on CD-ROM : the history of Britain, Ireland, and the British overseas (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1998), p.2 of accompanying booklet. Back to text

[2] The Museum’s website says that the machine was donated by me, which is true in the sense that I was the person who delivered it. Whether it was really mine to give is questionable, but it had lingered in my custody for well over a decade after the end of the project, by which time it seemed to deserve preservation. Back to text

[3] Andrew N. Porter, Bibliography of imperial, colonial and Commonwealth history since 1600 (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2002). Back to text

[4], accessed 13 Jan. 2017. Back to text

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