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Awards & Honors: 2007 National Humanities Medalist

Henry Leonard Snyder

After graduating from college at Berkeley in 1951, Henry Snyder worked for several years at a California department store, becoming the firm’s youngest buyer. At the same time, he served as an officer in the Army National Guard, where he built the Guard’s only full-strength rifle company in the western United States. Today, the scholar-administrator traces his knack for managing sprawling academic projects to both experiences. “Managing businesses, military units, large organizations—it’s all administration,” he says.

A specialist in British history, Snyder has been a professor and dean at the University of Kansas, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, and the University of California, Riverside. When he was appointed to head the North American part of the ESTC project in 1978, the initials stood for Eighteenth-Century Short-Title Catalogue—an ambitious effort to build a database of works printed in English-speaking countries from 1701 to 1800. Today, ESTC stands instead for the English Short-Title Catalogue, stretching from the early 1470s to 1800 to encompass the entire early printed period.

Supported by NEH, the ESTC includes hundreds of thousands of records from more than two thousand libraries on five continents—with more records still to be added. For Snyder, the project has required years of “proselytizing,” he says, since libraries use their own resources to supply the information. “I’ve visited hundreds of libraries and dozens of conferences and delivered many papers,” to encourage libraries to join the project. “I’m still doing it.”

By locating additional copies of early printed works, the ESTC provides better access for researchers. Snyder gives the example of an American scholar who might once have traveled to Scotland to study a rare book, but now can find it in Ohio. The project has also uncovered many previously unknown works and others that were considered lost. Researchers thought that there were no surviving copies of a 1710 tract that inspired author Jonathan Swift to begin a pro-government newspaper called The Examiner. The ESTC now records dozens of copies.

The ESTC alone could be the work of a lifetime. But for Snyder, who directs the Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research at the University of California at Riverside, it’s one of three major projects he’s worked on. The other two are the California Newspaper Project and the Catálogo colectivo de impresos latinoamericanos hasta 1851. Snyder notes that at the age of seventy he took on the newest of these, the online catalog of early printed works from Latin America, in 2000. He has since visited every national library in Latin America several times, eliciting tens of thousands of catalog records.

A sixth-generation Californian, Snyder has a special interest in the California Newspaper Project (CNP), which he joined in 1990 as part of an NEH initiative to preserve past issues of each state’s local newspapers. California, with more than nine thousand newspaper titles at fourteen hundred repositories, presented special challenges because of its size. Private companies, Snyder explains, had already microfilmed many of the newspapers. But some firms were going out of business or shifting focus, leaving the fate of the negatives uncertain. Over about fifteen years, the CNP acquired many of these holdings, amassing a 100,000-reel collection that includes new microfilms as well.

With its film archive largely complete, the center turned in 2005 to developing an online resource, the California Digital Newspaper Collection (CDNC). The CDNC has since launched its first offerings: searchable editions of the Daily Alta California from 1846 to 1891 and the San Francisco Call from 1900 to 1910. Early newspapers that covered San Francisco are especially important, Snyder explains, because they are among the few sources of information about the city before the 1906 earthquake and fire, which destroyed public records. Newspapers from other parts of the state will follow soon—although Snyder cheerfully notes that it would take five hundred years to digitize the project’s fifty-million-page archive using current methods. After a career working with computer-based projects, he is sure that advancing technology will leave that estimate in the dust before long.

For Snyder, the ESTC, the California Newspaper Project, and the Latin America catalog are each “a wonderful adventure in itself.” Looking back on decades of meetings, conferences, tireless travel, and shared information, he says, “it’s been a fascinating odyssey.”

By Esther Ferington