Thirty years ago virtually all the world’s knowledge was to be found in books gathered in libraries. With their comprehensive holdings, with their cataloging methods, reference works, and their expert staff, libraries were the traditional centers for researching the assembled knowledge. Access to it was seldom quick or easy, often tedious and time-consuming.
Samuel Johnson—the son of a bookseller—my favorite 18th century literary scholar, likely frustrated with the then conventional methods of obtaining desired information, wrote in one of his Rambler essays, March 19, 1751:
“I was lately considering among other objects of speculation, the new attempt of a universal register, an office in which every man may lodge an account of his superfluities and wants of whatever he desires to purchase or to sell. My imagination soon presented to me…the advantages which might be justly hoped from a general mart of intelligence where every lawful passion may find its gratification and every honest curiosity receive satisfaction.
Amazing! A presage of what today’s cyber world technology offers, including with the digitization of books a ready access and rapid retrieval of knowledge and information from an Internet source.
The lingering question is: What prompted Johnson’s thoughtful speculation? Of course we cannot know for certain, but a cursory look at what Johnson was working on in 1751 in addition to his twice weekly Rambler essays yields a credible answer.
Five years earlier in 1746 Johnson, then 37, agreed to compile and write a Dictionary of the English language. He thought it could be done in three years; it took nine. In 1751, therefore, he was still struggling with it. Adequate libraries were unavailable to him. He worked instead in the garret of his home, virtually alone, looking for words, searching for examples of their correct usage. His sources were his prodigious memory, his own books, and others borrowed from friends.
Johnson’s Dictionary, published in 1755, defined and set the spelling of more than 40,000 words and illustrated their proper usage with almost 115,000 excerpts from the works of English writers from the Elizabethan era on. It was one of the most influential reference books in the English language; browsing in it is still enjoyable.
One last insight into Johnson’s state of mind during those tedious and difficult days: To the definition of lexicographer, a writer of dictionaries, he could not resist adding, “a harmless drudge.”
Joe DeSalvo, Owner, Faulkner House Books
Lifetime member of
The Samuel Johnson Society*
*The Johnson Society offices are in Litchfield England, his birthplace. He wrote the Dictionary in his Gough Square, London residence; I still remember the awe I felt in the garret there.