Saturday, 15 June 2013

The English Short Title Catalogue

For the last several weeks I have been working on an article that explains the Scottish minister John Erskine's relationship with the English Particular Baptists, John Collett Ryland and his son John Ryland Jr. This has involved examining the letters that Erskine wrote to the Rylands in the last quarter of the eighteenth century.

In nearly every letter by Erskine, he included gratuitous works. My search has verified what the Presbyterian minister and church historian Samuel Miller said about Erskine in his Memoir of the Rev. Charles Nisbet (one of Erskine's correspondents):

But of all Dr. Nisbet’s correspondents in Great Britain, the most persevering and punctual was the venerable Dr. Erskine, of Edinburgh, one of the most pious and public spirited men of his day.  That gentleman probably maintained a more extensive correspondence with American clergymen than any other European Divine.  And probably, no private man on the other side of the Atlantic ever sent so many books gratuitously to this country as Dr. Erskine.  He probably had twenty or thirty correspondents in different parts of the United States; and it is believed that almost every letter he wrote was accompanied by a package of books.

In my book, Enlightened Evangelicalism: The Life and Thought of John Erskine, I talk about how Erskine forwarded religious publications to correspondents in America, Britain, and the Netherlands, including the Rylands. But I have now cataloged a list of the specific titles that the Rylands received from him. I calculate that Erskine posted about 400 texts to Ryland Jr. alone in the twenty-three years of their correspondence. This amounts to more than 4 texts per letter.

While researching the titles of the works that Erskine sent to the Rylands was a laborious process, involving many hours of searching, it would have been impossible without the use of the English Short Title Catalogue (ESTC) made available by the British Library. Using the ESTC database, I could search for pre-1801 publications using a number of parameters and was able , in most cases, to identify the precise edition that Erskine posted. The ESTC is just one more tool that academics have to aid them in their research in the current digital age--and I am grateful.

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