Never Too Obscure by Dennis Duncan

Dennis Duncan

Never Too Obscure


The libraries are closed. If, like me, your day job involved calling up books and sifting them for material to fill articles, lectures or books of one’s own, then coronavirus has thrown a spanner in the works. Suddenly there’s little opportunity to check any of the references, transcriptions or summaries jotted down when those books were available. You’d better hope you took good notes.

But what does a note look like? In the autumn of 1849, when the journal Notes & Queries first appeared, its front page addressed itself rhapsodically to this question. Any serious reader, it mused, would have acquired the habit of scribbling down details from their reading that they wished to remember. Furthermore:

It cannot be denied that reading and writing men, of moderate industry, who act on this rule for any considerable length of time, will accumulate a good deal of matter in various forms, shapes, and sizes – some more, some less legible and intelligible – some unposted in old pocket books – some on whole or half sheets, or mere scraps of paper, and backs of letters – some, lost sight of and forgotten, stuffing out old portfolios, or getting smoky edges in bundles tied up with faded tape. There are, we are quite sure, countless boxes and drawers, and pigeon-holes of such things, which want looking over, and would well repay the trouble.

It is a delicious passage, a vivid eulogy to the note’s ragged diversity. Notes & Queries would provide a home for these orphaned scraps that had been overlooked but not disposed of. For its motto, the new journal took the catchphrase of Captain Cuttle from Dickens’s Dombey and Son, published only a couple of years previously: ‘When found, make a note of.’ This, effectively, has remained the journal’s guiding principle for the last 170 years.

Billed as ‘A Medium of Inter-Communication for Literary Men, Artists, Antiquaries, Genealogists, etc.’, Notes & Queries was to be a kind of highbrow bulletin board, a clearing house for historical arcana. Readers could write in with ‘queries’ or with ‘notes’, either in response to a published query or to share discoveries with other readers. Brevity was key: a note should be a single nugget of specialist information rather than a full-blown scholarly essay. From then until now, the journal has orbited loosely around the fields of literature and history, and the specialisation on show is something to behold.

During the lockdown, the Notes & Queries website has been gently ticking over, shining its patient light on ‘An Unknown Gift Poem by Anthony Harison in a Copy of Castiglione’s Courtier’ and ‘The Significance of Baynard’s Castle in London’s Lord Mayor’s Shows’. But where the journal’s modern incarnation is impeccably sober, earlier issues had room for items that were briefer, quirkier. Among the antiquarianism and manuscript-bothering we find someone asking, ‘I should like to know something more about radish feasts’, alongside a simple list of ‘Twelve Great English Names Ending in “on.” – Bacon, Milton, Newton, Jonson…’ Notes & Queries, then, offers a singular example of a periodical that has dumbed up.

Like many Victorian journals, Notes & Queries was indexed on a yearly basis, and a quick glance at one of these indexes reveals how scattergun were its contents:

Hoppesteres, in Chaucer, 301
Horation, on Percy Bysshe Shelley: name of Bysshe, 441
Horkesley, Little, its church, 338
Horn, engraved geographical, 89, 253
Horse in mythology of Northern Europe, 281
Horsey (J.) on Bishops that have been Treasurers, 154
‘How do ye do?’ 497

There is certainly breadth here. We jump from medieval dancers to Shelley’s unusual middle name (it entered the family in 1692 via his great-great-grandmother). However, there is no coherence: nothing has any connection to anything else. What about all the other churches, the other phrases, the other Chaucerian characters?

Nevertheless, this diversity seems to have planted in the mind of one reader, the folklorist Laurence Gomme, the idea of producing a grand index of everything. In October 1877, Gomme wrote a letter to the Athenaeum declaring that ‘Notes & Queries is an almost constant collector of materials needed for such an undertaking as a universal index.’ Gomme’s suggestion had not come out of nowhere. Earlier that month, at the International Conference of Librarians, a paper by J Ashton Cross had created a buzz that had spread to the newspapers. Its title was ‘A Universal Index of Subjects’. Before October was out, the Index Society had been formed to thrash out a scheme for a universal index. The programme would be a three-tiered one. First, the society would identify important or ‘standard’ works that lacked indexes and ask members to do the needful. Second, it would draw up a list of disciplines – anthropology, astronomy, botany, and so on. Indexes from canonical works in each field could then be consolidated into subject-specific general indexes. Finally, these subject indexes would be fed upwards into the all-knowing vastness of the universal index.

At first, all went well: membership in the hundreds, an early rush of publications, an office in the Adelphi. Lord Carnarvon became the society’s president; Leslie Stephen spent time on the board. Soon, however, the initial enthusiasm waned. Membership plateaued and want of funds became a perennial lament. Within a decade the Index Society had ceased to function. Henry Wheatley, the most energetic of its founding members, reflected ruefully, ‘I fear that the interest of the public in the production of indexes (which is considerable) does not go to the length of willingness to pay for these indexes.’ The effort involved in compiling an index of everything was beyond even Wheatley’s celebrated industriousness.

And yet, of course, we now all use such a thing every day. When Cross gave his lecture in 1877, he closed with a confident prediction: ‘The question … ought to be, not whether a Universal Index shall be made, but only in what way it can best be made.’ In the age of the search engine, Cross’s forecast has come palpably to pass. Whether it has been achieved in a manner that would satisfy or horrify the moustachioed gentlemen of the Index Society is a moot point. The modern search engine works in a way that is much closer to Gomme’s first suggestion – hoovering up odds and ends – than to the structured programme of the Index Society. ‘Crawling and indexing,’ according to Google, are ‘the fundamentals of Search’. Or to put it another way, ‘When found, make a note of.’

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