Friday, 23 April 2021

Notes on BL catalogue work

Notes on catalogue work

It is possible to get large amounts of data from the British library catalogue up on screen, and download it page by page to a spreadsheet. Then you can post-process it and generally do your will. I think spelunking is the technical term. The catalogue interface is not designed for this kind of data grab, so the download was bloody awkward. The BL catalogue has a tag “English poetry” which means “English language poetry”, so I had to edit out Canadian and American poets. Crawling through large spreadsheets line by line is deeply unwelcome and gives me headaches. I can't do this for the whole 40 year period which interests me (1960 to 97) but I have done an amount of sampling. The topics of interest were: overall count of poets active. Count of titles published. Changes during the period. Ratio of male to female writers.

For 1991, the figures I came out with were 835 volumes by British poets, and if we exclude anthologies then 27.5% of the titles were by women. This compares with 20% for a period in the 70s (June 1975 to June 1976). This is a fairly rapid change for a 15-year period.
Because of the difficulties, these figures are not totally reliable.

The BL catalogue has a tag “Subject”, which should help, but most poetry does not have the value “poetry” within this field, and the tagging is inconsistent. If you trawl three times using different search strings, you get a mass of data, but there is no guarantee that it is complete. The BL catalogue for publication date 1990 and tag “English poetry” shows 1551 titles. After eliminating anything which is non-British, non-20th C, in prose, etc., this comes down to 831 titles by single authors (and 124 anthologies). My impression is strongly that any retrieval based on labels like “English language poetry” will yield inflated totals, like the raw count of 1551. These do not give a credible picture of the poetry scene. I have seen various figures quoted for overall titles published which seem to be seriously exaggerated. The raw data includes academic criticism of poetry, editions of Chaucer, and so forth, and you have to correct it line by line.

A likely total for the 1970s is 6000 titles and 3000 poets. I regret that the sources are inconsistent. I have a spreadsheet of names with 2000 non-duplicate names.

Any totals would include estimates for 1970 and 1971, as I don’t have detailed data. For this reason a consistent set of data for the whole decade is not available to me. I emphasise that the BL does not produce its catalogue for the benefit of historians, but for the benefit of people visiting to consult books, and I am not criticising anyone for not fulfilling goals which they never had.

A provisional total for the period (1960-97) is 5000 poets and 25,000 titles. This is only based on a count for a few years, and I wouldn't say a “good count”. I have a good count for four years, the ones covered by the excellent “Poet’s Yearbook”.

To take an example, Lion Lion (by Tom Raworth, 1970) is there in the BL catalogue but is not labelled as 821.914 OR as 'English poetry'. And “poems” is not in the title or description. Shelfmark “General Reference Collection", no Subject identifier at all. So there is no way of catching it in a trawl. Did they not see it as poetry? Crow, from the same year, has the same issue (but does have the attribute of 821.914). Maybe the subject tags started later in life?

Has the count of male poets gone down? This is weird. Can’t have a static total and the ratio of women poets going up. The figures I have are not good enough to answer this question.

I found working through the data for 1960 depressing. Almost half the titles are from vanity presses and the wave of “small presses” has yet to start. The list is full of books I don’t want to read. It brings us back to Mottram’s position -everything started in 1960, the Fifties were a cold war against ourselves and deeply hostile to poetry and its creators. We apparently have a growth of 300% between then and 1975 – this isn’t surprising, evidently if you start from zero then huge growth is possible. A bit of additional work found more titles. ‘Lupercal’ came up only on the third trawl I did. ‘The nature of cold weather’ has “1960” printed on the title page but was issued with a slip which says “actually published in 1961”. ‘City’ part 2 shows up in 1962, but the original City is not found at all. Creatures and emblems, by Kathleen Nott, does not show up under existing searches but is in the catalogue. The Flooded Valley, by Roland Mathias, did not come up in the searches I did. So if you manage to list Hughes, Fisher, Redgrove, Nott, Mathias, the year does not look so bad. This just underlines the problems of using the BL catalogue. All the same the list is enough to make you give up. My feeling has always been that “City” and “torse 3” showed things changing, utterly. John Smith’s A Letter to Lao Tze came out in 1961. 1960 did see Songs of a mad prince, by T. Harri Jones, certainly poetry although it is too dark to be really beautiful. Still, you can’t ignore him.

The count possibly didn't grow in 15 years, from the mid 70s to 1990. I am looking at this. Maybe there was a peak which was hard to exceed. New poets arrived but not in a “human wave”. 800 titles a year is quite a lot, we are not talking about a depression or anything like that. Ten poets stalk off stage in a high-value sulk, and twenty young poets, rippling with intelligence, stroll on to replace them.

I am spelling out the problems here because I expect to use the figures a lot and I want a reference which I can point towards to explain how shaky the figures are.

Stop press. I have just discovered that the first book by someone I admire, in 1943, was from a vanity press. He had a big career after that, suppressing any memory of that 1943 book on his dust jackets. So, the generalisation that people who use vanity presses never have careers does not hold good. It is not the kiss of death, although it suggests that you are not an insider. Actually, quite a few good poets worked with Fortune Press, which had elements of extracting “guarantees” and ”undertakings to buy” from poets. They did have an element of quality control and certainly tried to sell the books, having printed them.

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