Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.02.04

RESPONSE: Carson on Brennan on DCB

(Editor's note: Corey Brennan's review of the electronic Database of Classical Bibliography (BMCR 96.1.5) bore on the paper L'Année Philologique as well as on the e-version. Lisa Carson of the American office of APh responds below. [Some readers will already have seen this message on the CLASSICS list, where it appeared earlier due to a misunderstanding. The editors apologize for the confusion.])

I welcome the opportunity offered by BMCR to reply to issues raised about l'Année philologique in the review by Corey Brennan of the Database of Classical Bibliography, the electronic version of APh. I followed with interest the discussion generated by the review on the Classics electronic bulletin board, and it seemed to me that providing some details about the operations of APh would be useful, particularly the American Office (AO) of which I am director. (Readers of BMCR may also recall the account of Hans-Friedrich Mueller, then a research assistant in the AO, published in BMCR 94.3.25).

One cannot help but be dismayed by the egregious omissions and inaccuracies that Prof. Brennan found when he checked the printed volumes of APh that make up the DCB (1976-1987) against a number of journals. He documented numerous omissions from CQ (as well as articles that were included without summaries) and 20 articles and 36 book reviews in AJPh that were omitted, and he referred in passing to the omission of articles and reviews appearing in CPh, Phoenix, and TAPhA. He also detailed a number of inaccuracies in the data appearing in APh, as well as further errors introduced in the process of transferring the data into electronic format in the DCB.

An obvious question is why such omissions and errors occurred, and a related question is whether, as seemed implicitly suggested in the review, this state of affairs continues to exist in the AO. I can state with certainty that the situation is much improved. From the AO's inception in 1965 and until recently, the directorship of the office was held by various full-time faculty members of the Department of Classics of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, whose editorial duties were made possible by modest release time, and who were assisted by 2 or 3 graduate students working approximately 12 hours per week. It may be presumed that a project staffed primarily by classicists in training, working part-time, and supervised by a professor who could only devote a fraction of his time to the project would naturally suffer the sorts of problems we have seen. It was an awareness of these problems that lead former Director Laurence Stephens to create a full-time bibliographer position, for which he received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. (I assisted him in this position for a few years and assumed the directorship when he left the department in 1992).

The specific omissions reported by Prof. Brennan will be corrected. I have taken care of those he listed for AJPh. I was hopeful at first that the majority would be justified, but this was not the case. Of the 20 missing articles only three, and arguably a fourth, were actually beyond the scope of APh. Of the 36 missing reviews only three were not within scope. It is worth repeating here some of the limits we place on inclusion. Prof. Brennan noted omission by the Heidelberg office of articles concerning classical scholarship -- the only omission he noted in RhM -- and wondered whether this was due to a policy followed only in Heidelberg. In fact it is a policy (like all APh policies) followed by all the offices. We do not include all books and articles concerning the history of classical scholarship, but only those specifically involving the survival of texts, bibliography and the like. We do not as a rule include biographical material, the history of classical studies at specific institutions, or other items of a general nature, though our coverage is more inclusive now than in the period covered by the DCB. (It should be noted that the coverage of RhM in Heidelberg, like almost everything done in that office, appears therefore to have been perfect.)

We do not generally list reviews of books that have appeared in APh for five years (exceptions are made for lengthy reviews and those of otherwise little-reviewed works). We do not list reviews of article collections that have themselves been excerpted. We have not so far listed works in audio, video, or electronic format, though that is of course likely to change. The yearly increase in the amount of material published in classics and related fields -- for which, regrettably, there is no corresponding increase of staffing at the several offices of APh, but rather a decrease in recent years -- necessitate periodic revision of the extent of our coverage; new restrictions (some mentioned in the review) are noted in the Avant-propos at the beginning of the APh volume.

So the majority of omissions noted by Prof. Brennan cannot be excused. They are likely the result of a combination of ignorance (that a given author or topic is within the scope of APh) and sheer carelessness (e.g., the second half of a journal omitted through forgetfulness) on the part of graduate assistants. Both of these are inevitable and somewhat difficult to address. I correct all the work of my assistants several times, and thus errors remaining in the material we do submit are my own, but the fact that I am evaluating files containing information about journals I haven't seen is a problem without easy solution. Much of what I see in an article summary I have to take on faith (though I have missed many peculiarities and outright errors that later caught the eye of my Paris colleagues). I know of only one way to address the problem of errors in spelling of unfamiliar author names, and of erroneous omissions, and that is to go over the tables of contents of each journal issue excerpted by my assistants, checking titles, author names, and possible oversights. This I do, and I have every reason to believe that it has made a difference in the thoroughness of our coverage. It might be pointed out here that an ancillary function of the AO is to provide training to the graduate students who assist the director; while this is a valuable end it is not the most efficient allocation of the director's time. Assistants spend only a year or two at APh (occasionally more than this) and thus a considerable amount of my time is spent in training them in the seemingly infinite rules -- along with their inevitable exceptions -- for compiling the volume. The other offices are staffed almost exclusively with full-time trained classicists; the addition of even one such person to the staff of the AO would make an immense difference in our efforts to contain the ever-growing mass of published material (for 1994, close to 900 articles excerpted from article collections, a most prolific form of publication), but this is not going to take place anytime soon (see below on the anxious future of the AO).

When omissions do occur, as is especially often the case with a book that somehow escapes notice by not being reviewed, the fact is sometimes brought to my attention by the author or some other person. This is very helpful. I also peruse book catalogues and lists of books received, which has increased the number of books collected by the AO in recent years by several hundred per year. Scholars often send us copies of journal articles and reviews they have published in journals not excerpted by APh, the only thing that enables their inclusion. We appreciate being notified of errors of all kinds so that these can be rectified; we appreciate being told of new journals we might not be aware of (especially those in fields other than classics that might contain material of interest to classicists); most of all we appreciate being sent article collections (Festschriften and the like) that might not appear quickly, or at all, in local libraries. Such gifts, not excluding journal subscriptions, are an invaluable resource in our work. (Addresses for the appropriate routing of published materials among the different offices appear in a note at the beginning of the APh volume.)

Once an omission occurs it will not be corrected unless it is brought to our attention in some way, either by a published reply or because someone informs us of it. It is impossible not to wonder how many items in addition to those cited by Prof. Brennan may have been omitted from 1976-1987, but his wish that the DCB might go back and do the work that does not appear could not be granted if all our staffs were doubled: the AO alone excerpts over 200 journals each year (most of these have more than one issue yearly); a glance at the journal list at the front of APh will indicate how much time would be involved in going back to check every issue of every journal and looking up each item (even on CD-ROM) to see whether it appears. We must content ourselves with doing those items that are brought to our attention and continuing to improve the accuracy of our coverage.

The computerization of APh has been a drawn-out process, but all offices (including the newly formed Italian office) are now beginning to work using a common database, one benefit of which will be its error-checking procedures. Among these procedures are two that relate to problems brought up in the BMCR review: errors in entering the names of modern authors will be nearly eliminated by an self-compiling author index that will automatically query unfamiliar name forms, and the omission of articles and book reviews can be avoided by a procedure that checks journal pages for gaps in issues. Pull-down menus in many fields will save time and also protect against various errors in entry including classification and spelling.

I hope to have shown that the AO has established the sorts of procedures that can provide reassurance to users of APh that the sorts of shortcomings listed in Prof. Brennan's review are taken seriously and have been addressed, and that the integrity of the project as a whole will be increased by features of the newly developed database. I also have hope that the interest generated by the review might lead classicists to concern themselves with ensuring the viability of the AO, as that is very much in question. For some years now the operations of the AO have been financed by grants from the NEH, but this will not be the case if the agency is further altered or eliminated as planned. Whether the project can continue in its present form and location or ought to (or could) move to a different institution, and what funding source might be able to assure its continuation, are open questions. I welcome suggestions from all interested persons and I hope that the profession as a whole will devote energetic attention, and soon, to guaranteeing the continued survival of an invaluable resource.

Lisa Carson
University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill)