Computers: Poetry beyond the fragments: A binful of old books led Andrew Brown to an obsure Restoration poet. A CD-rom now makes the complete works accessible

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The Independent Online
Charles Cotton was a Restoration poet interested in women, drink, and fly-fishing. He wrote best about the first, but more than competently about the other two. You would not find him in libraries: if he is remembered at all today, it is because he wrote the later sections of the Compleat Angler, one of the best-selling books of all time.

I only stumbled over him 10 years ago, when picking through a binful of poetry anthologies that my landlady at the time was throwing out. There, in the Penguin Book of Unrespectable Verse, was a vulgar and touching epitaph upon a young lady no better than she should have been: 'In this cold monument lies one, that I know who has lain upon . . .'

Nowhere else could I find any more of him than fragments. Even the London Library had no collection of Cotton. Now I have access to everything he ever published, on a CD-rom, along with the complete works of most other poets in the English language who wrote before 1900. He has appeared on the second release of the Chadwyck-Healey database of English poetry; the set will be complete next month with the publication of the third CD, making available 1,350 poets. The only snag is the price: pounds 25,000.

When the first release of the database came out about 18 months ago the second thing reviewers noticed, after the price, was just how godawful most of the poetry published in past ages had actually been. When everyone with pretensions to culture wrote verse, much got published which was the equivalent of daytime television. But amid the Himalayas of rubbish you can still find Parnassus. Or at least your library can; this is not a program to be bought by individuals. Several public libraries have already brought it in this country since Northumberland became the first.

It is a tool for research rather than for reading; but it can answer any question you want. It is not just a matter of finding the poem or poet from which a particular line came. You can search for unrhymed poems, poems with a particular dedication, for poems with a given title from any period in history. Like the Oxford English Dictionary, it allows you to discover in minutes what could have taken years, and earned someone a PhD, with traditional methods.

Chadwyck-Healey is a Cambridge firm that has cornered the market in making scholarly texts available on CD-rom. As well as the Complete English Poetry, it is working on the Complete English Verse Drama, and the Patrologia Latina, a 221- volume collection of Latin writings from AD200 to 1300. This is slightly more expensive than the English poets.

The firm does do cheaper and more ephemeral CD-roms, among them the annual Independent and editions of Hansard. All these are better, or at least more useful, than their paper equivalents in bulk. If books can be divided into two sorts: those into which you quarry for reference and those from which you drink for refreshment, then all the quarries will end up on CD-rom within the next 10 years. They are just so much more useful, since they allow you to get at the information in any way that is convenient. What will not work on disk and screen are the books you read for refreshment. I shall probably try to make myself a private anthology of Charles Cotton and print it out as an A5 pamphlet to carry around with me like a real book.

Of course this is a silly journalist's luxury. The real question facing CD-rom reference software is whether it can break out of its present markets and into the market of people spending their own money, at whom this page is aimed. The obvious answer seems to be that it can if Microsoft is interested. The Encarta encyclopedia, reviewed below, is only about pounds 80 in the shops; and the Dinosaurs and Musical Instruments disks, produced from Dorling Kindersley coffee-table books, are about pounds 20 cheaper. Certainly, Encarta comes quite close to the ideal of a software product that is so good people will buy the hardware to run it. (So, in their rather different market, do the Chadwyck-Healey products. A library that will pay for the disks will not flinch at the extra pounds 1,000 for a jukebox set of CD-rom drives).

But the Microsoft products are fine adaptations of existing books. The work of selection and editing has been done already; what the books have gained in translation to CD-rom is pizazz. The poetry database is different. The greatest part of the cost has been to key in, index, and edit. The disks are not a translation of an existing resource into another medium. They are a new creation.

If the vast databases of this sort are ever to reach a mass market, some way must be found of sharing their cost over the huge numbers of people who might want to use them, but not to own them. And here the CD-rom comes up against the other half of the information revolution: the computer network.

' The way in which we sell and supply electronic information over the next few years is going to change.' Steven Hall, the marketing director of Chadwyck-Healey, says. 'In most countries the infrastructure isn't really there for groups of libraries to acquire them and put them up on a national net. But it is coming. One group of libraries in Virginia has already brought the database on tape and four or five other universities in the state are dialling in to the one copy.'

The difficulty, he says, is working out a fair price for these arrangements. Individual on-line use - the dream of being able to dial into the database from any home - is probably never going to happen. But access from any public library may well be a reality within five years. I cannot help feeling that will be more fun than looking up Charles Cotton in Encarta. He is there, but only as the man who wrote the fly-fishing chapters of the Compleat Angler.

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