Thomas Wolsey (1470/71–1530) was a royal minister, the archbishop of York, and cardinal and lived during the time that was pestered with vermin such as head and body lice. This piece of trivial information is curiously linked to the theme of this post, inaccurate metadata – something that today is pretty much as unwelcome and an annoying guest as were the various species of lice in the sixteenth-century England. Let me turn to the topic of this post and the source of my current irritation: Google and other bodies who have scanned and uploaded enormous amounts of nineteenth-century books to OA sites such as the Internet Archive. I have written here before about my frustrations about the numerous mishaps that corrupt the digitalized nineteenth-century history books. After just completing two intense weeks with online copies of Mandell Creighton’s (1843–1901) history books I am once again dismayed by the high number of mistakes the books and their metadata contain. Although I am immensely grateful to everyone who has made it possible for me to gain access to all these nineteenth-century books that are not available in the libraries in Helsinki, I am also greatly concerned about the consequences the incorrect metadata may cause to research. After all, it is precisely the metadata that is decisive for what kind of results we get when we search the vast online libraries.
In 1876, Mandell Creighton, one day a Cambridge history professor and the first editor of the English Historical Review, prepared for Longman a book called The Age of Elizabeth. It was a concise narrative history aimed for a large market and since it reached its’ goal, it went through various editions and reprints during Creighton’s time. As I was primarily interested to see whether Creighton’s paratexts changed from one edition to another, I was not tracing just any copy of The Age of Elizabeth, but those that the bibliography identified as new editions. Thanks to my previous experience with Internet Archive, I knew that it was useless to search titles with a specific publication date. This information is utterly unreliable. Thus, I typed just “Age of Elizabeth” and “Creighton” and got eighteen hits which proved once again how poorly the metadata has been composed. Out of the eighteen online copies, ten had been tagged with an incorrect publication date. Yes, I said ten! That is more than half of the copies uploaded to the Internet Archive. For example, three out of the five original 1876 editions were labelled as being published either in 1887 or 1930. The year 1887 seemed to be popular, because the versions that were issued in 1904 and 1905 were marked as published in 1887 as well. Calling the results confusing or misleading is an understatement.
The unreliable metadata is a nuisance and for a heavy user like me it is hard to find anything amusing in it. Though I must confess that there are moments when the mistakes are so absurd that they actually take a comical turn brightening the day of a frustrated book historian. This brings us back to Thomas Wolsey and to the question whether the powerful cardinal suffered from lice. This question is relevant because Creighton wrote a book titled Cardinal Wolsey (London: Macmillan, 1888). It, too, was aimed at the so-called general reader and just like The Age of Elizabeth, it became a staple reading for anyone interested in the history of England. As its popularity spread, A. L. Burt, a New York publishing house, issued the book in the US in 1903 with a slightly altered title that presumably made it more appealing to the local audience. Thus, the book was introduced to the North American readers as The Life of Cardinal Wolsey. The meandering publishing history of Cardinal Wolsey took a surprising turn sometime in the 2010s when the book was once more rechristened. This time it appeared as The Lice of Cardinal Wolsey. Sure, it is not unlikely at all that the powerful cardinal had suffered from head and body lice at some point of his life, but it is highly doubtful that the unwanted guests had had so much impact on Wolsey’s politics that Creighton would have dedicated an entire book for the topic. Yet, the typo that turned “life” into “lice” reveals the consequences minor deviations in the metadata can cause. Putting the gravity of the matter aside, I have to admit that the blunder sure made the day of this paratext-nerd.
In the midst of the contemporary technology hype it is easy to overlook the fact that digitalization of historical materials still requires human agency and that humans are prone to errors. This fact was crystal clear for Mandell Creighton, who admitted to H. C. Lea in 1887 how he never opened any of his books “without finding some mistake or misprint, or clumsiness, or ambiguity, or something that causes me a pang.” Acknowledging the evident slips and blunders prompted the nineteenth-century historians to revise their studies time and again to assure an ever higher quality of their work. Quality control would be much needed also today to ensure that the metadata of electronic source material is as accurate as possible. Shifting the focus from quantity to quality is pivotal because without the quality historians will not be able to reap the benefits of the quantity.
Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, Sometime Bishop of London, vol. 1, ed. Louise Creighton (London: Longmans, 1904).
Robert Hooke, Migrographia (1667).