In 1970, R. J. Roberts mentioned an intriguing “scheme put up by Mr. David Foxon for an eighteenth-century catalogue based on advertisements for new books” (in his “Towards a Short-Title Catalogue of English Eighteenth-Century Books,” The Journal of Library History, vol.2, no.4 (October 1970): 253). At the time, planning for the ESTC was in the infancy. Roberts’ article was comprised of reflections and advice on how to carry out an ESTC, written in the hope of seeing such a project started.
Roberts’ article certainly makes interesting reading today, especially the sections on “A Catalogue of Advertised Books” and on rarity (249: a “useful function” in a short-title catalogue that is “frequently despised and much abused”!). Roberts quotes at length from Foxon’s “proposals [which] were duplicated for limited circulation” (262n10), but I can find no further reference to Foxon’s proposals online—either quoted, referenced or catalogued—so I have transcribed all of the text that Roberts quotes.
The aims of this project are twofold. For many purposes precise dating of the publication of books and pamphlets is important, and generations of scholars have thumbed through the Burney Newspapers in the British Museum in search of advertisements for a handful of books. This is an appalling waste of scholarly time, and has resulted in much wear and tear on this collection of newspapers, which is now coming to the end of its safe life. At the same time the Burney Newspapers have many gaps, and probably contain no more than 60–70 per cent of the extant issues of newspapers; but to supplement these files by searching the other files scattered across the world is beyond the capacity of individual workers. In the first place, then, this project would provide precise dating of new publications, and would frequently produce details of publication and price not to be found in the books themselves, as well as providing information on advertising methods and policies.
The second aim, therefore, will be achieved in the process of reaching the first, in the production of a catalogue of eighteenth-century books which were advertised, with locations of copies. This will differ from previous short-title catalogues in being selective; but the books which are advertised will represent over 95 percent of those of interest to modern scholars, though they are a much smaller proportion of the books actually published.
Roberts thought that Foxon’s plan would be easier to implement than a full-blown ESTC, but was was “not convinced that advertisements are always truthful,” and cautioned that such a catalogue “would undoubtedly produce a high proportion of books which are no longer extant.”
From my experience, searching for advertisements for extant books, and extant copies of books advertised, Roberts is certainly right. Nevertheless, Foxon is also right. Even with the Burney collection of newspapers available to be searched online: searching for advertisements remains “an appalling waste of scholarly time”!