The news that OUP have done a deal with British libraries1 to make their online reference works available made me rummage around for a piece I wrote in 1996 for British Wired, when Oliver Morton and Sean Geer were running it. This was about Chadwyck-Healey, a wonderful company, which has vanished into the bowels of Microsoft, but which made stuff that was about the opposite of wikipedia: vastly expensive and thorough databases whose reliability was absolute. I still have their Bible in English, but I never did manage to blag the English Poetry one and save myself £25,000 (plus VAT). The other thing that strikes me, rereading this, is how little has changed in the last ten years of the web. Sure, we say "Google" now, and not "Altavista", and the numbers are bigger, too. But the bubble, though it inflated the universe of the web, did not change its geometry, or its essential qualities. That had already been set. The elements had emerged from the big bang.
Reading poetry on screen is an undeniably strange experience, with something of the strangeness that must have gripped the people who made the first great transition from hearing poetry to reading it on paper. Books, after all, can be read in a very physical way: paperbacks can be mashed open and margins scribbled; a small hardback gripped between the first two fingers and thumb in a gesture that seems as much a physical part of thought as smoking once did.
With computers, there is nothing for our bodies to do. Behind a screen profundity swims as inaccessible and pointless as a goldfish. Slowly, this merely physical strangeness wears off, to be replaced by a deeper one; anyone who loves books has read them in all sorts of ways and places. The deeper weirdness is not in the physical medium through which we study the text. It is the loss of borders..
There are no more front or back covers. The page extends in every direction. You can leap from anywhere in the library to anywhere else. Instead of being selected by publishers, or authors, or even printers, the "next" or "previous" poem is whatever you ’d like. This can be quite a subtle choice. If I want all seventeenth century sonnets mentioning trout the database will find them. But if you want to find all dedicatory poems ever published in Edinburgh by poets whose birthdate is uncertain, you can do that, too. Or a simple listing of all the speeches which any dramatist ever put in the mouth of Faust.
There are some books which are already almost databases. The Oxford English dictionary is the best example; I have never known anyone who has played with the CD-Rom willingly return to the paper version. The Dictionary Of National Biography, if it is ever finished, will be another. But poetry seems different, partly because it often is. The arrangement of poems in a modern book may well be meant to bring out a message; even their arrangement on a page may have this effect, and though a database can preserve spelling and line breaks, it cannot economically preserve typography. A poem in a database will look different, and so to some extent be different, to the same work in a book. Even when the look and typography of each page is preserved on CD-Rom as in the Chadwyck-Healey edition of Tristram Shandy, part of their eighteenth-century literature project, the effect on the reader is necessarily going to be subtly different. Each page, no matter how perfectly reproduced, is framed in a huge and echoing gallery of possibilities. "Until we made the database, the corpus of literature did not exist," says Steven Hall, the marketing director; and in a sense, he is right. There may have been libraries which had every poem in the database, but these would not have formed a coherent anthology or anything like one.
It may seem that this is something very similar to web surfing at the moment. Technically, the two are not far different. The big text databases share a common linguistic ancestry with the World Wide Web; they are both children of SGML, the standard general mark-up language, which was modified to become HTML by Tim Berners-Lee at Cern.
Yet the gap between Chadwyck-Healey’s shelves and the wider web could hardly be deeper, narrow though it seems. You surf the web; you swim in a database. The web grows like an algal bloom, covering everything in a brightly-coloured surface that cannot be controlled or classified. It is full of noise and colour and anything else that can be crammed on. As soon as someone works out a scratch and sniff extension to Netscape it will be all over the web. The pure text parts are often the least successful. The web is almost all surface. It will take you anywhere you like provided you don’t stop to think or ask. The characteristic experience of web surfing is a wild and uncontrollable careen from the Encyclopaedia Brittanica to some tourist board’s web site in Northern Canada and then on to an undergraduate essay, two broken links and the discovery that Altavista indexes 1,200,000 occurrences of the word "God" and only 42 of the phrase "being fucked by". At then end you may be dazzled, exhausted, even happier; but you will hardly be any wiser. The uniform unremitting easiness of it all is just too much; and everything on the web is either easy or impossible.
The other great contrast is that the Web is free, as near as makes no difference. Chadwyck-Healey’s disks start at £1,250 for the Bible set, and run up to £25,000 for English Poetry or the Patrologia Latina. There is something rather chic about four CD-Roms costing more than a four-wheel drive, but they will never become a mass-market goodie, however deeply we move into an information economy.
Yet the significance of the library deal is that they may well become accessible to the masses. I would never spend £195 a year for access to the OED online. But now that the Essex libraries have subscribed to it, I don’t have to. My council tax buys me online access to it, and to the Grove Dictionary of Music and the DNB, all from home. This is completely wonderful. I’m sure that this kind of arrangement, in civilised countries, will turn out to be te way to get markets in reliable information that can deliver it at a fair price. There has to be a middle way between the free and amateur Wikipedia and the authoritative but unaffordable English Poetry. Collective subscriptions, which means libraries of one sort or another, must be it.
1 Thanks. Rupert.