Professor Trevor Howard-Hill: Shakespearean scholar known for his pioneering work in literary computing

Trevor Howard-Hill, a New Zealand-born pioneer in literary computing and an expert on dramatic manuscripts of the Shakespearean period, was one of the most widely respected scholars in the emerging field of book history and one of the most tenacious and sceptical combatants in the rapidly changing world of editorial theory.

In the early 1960s, he planned the multi-volume Index to British Literary Bibliography, projected to take over 30 years to complete. The first volumes, published by Oxford in 1969, immediately became standard research tools for works; the final two massive volumes on The British Book Trade 1475-1890 were triumphantly published, three publishers and several title changes later, in 2009.

Trevor Howard Howard-Hill was born in Lower Hutt, near Wellington, New Zealand, son of a policeman and a housewife. He had a brother, Beresford, who died of cancer in adulthood. After school in Wellington, he was in his own words "almost unthinkingly drawn to book-related studies." He went to work "as a general roustabout and cleaner with the local newspaper," and then, on going to the local Victoria University, became editor of the student newspaper.

He gained his BA in 1955, MA 1957, and PhD 1960, working with Professor I A Gordon and with his own near-contemporary Don McKenzie. His PhD was on Ralph Crane and spelling analysis. As if a warning of what was to come, it was sub-titled "a preparatory study of his life, spelling and scribal habits." This formed the foundation for a monograph on Crane, and for other essays including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Crane entry.

He then did a library diploma, focusing on cataloguing "as a form of bibliographical description," he remarked, because he thought himself "undisciplined and unmethodical." From 1961-63, he was head of cataloguing for New Zealand's great Alexander Turnbull Library, retaining for the rest of his life the then-obligatory librarian's italic hand.

His research required painstaking hand-analysis of Shakespearean spelling, and to go further he needed computer access he could not get in Wellington. Inspired by the work of the distinguished Oxford Shakespearean Alice Walker and of Charlton B Hinman in Kansas, he moved to Britain in 1964, first as a librarian at the Shakespeare Institute in Birmingham, and then from 1965-70 as a research fellow in literary computing in Oxford. Here he produced the 37-volume series of Oxford Shakespeare Concordances (1969-73), the basis for his later book on Literary Concordances (1979). Supervised by Walker, he wrote a second doctoral thesis, his influential study Ralph Crane and some Shakespeare first folio comedies (1971). Simultaneously, he completed the first two volumes of his great life-work, the Index to British Literary Bibliography (1969-2009). One of us vividly recalls, in a literary-research-methods course at a British redbrick university in the late 1960s, being alerted to Trevor's work as terrifyingly raising standards for future bibliographical researchers.

He moved in 1970 to University College, Swansea, then in 1972, was recruited to join an ambitious group of textual and editorial scholars at the University of South Carolina in the US. This would remain his scholarly base for almost the next 40 years, though he went back to Britain every year, both for research and to see his daughters from his first marriage. He was promoted to full professor (1977-1990) and, as a former shop steward for the freezing workers' union in New Zealand, took a full part in faculty governance, including a stint as chair of the English department (1990-91). In part to avoid difficulties over his union's early communist links, he never sought US citizenship.

Recognition came with an NEH Fellowship (1979) and a Guggenheim (1989). In 1990 he became the C Wallace Martin Professor of English, a position held until retirement in 1999. He then moved into an office in the university library, from which he continued to edit PBSA, the century-old quarterly Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America.

Howard-Hill's central commitment remained his scholarship. The 1980s were turbulent times in Shakespearean studies, even in textual editing. He was almost unique in his range of knowledge of the Shakespearean texts themselves, of the printing practices that transmitted them, and of contemporary dramatic manuscripts and their conventions. Fully understanding newer textual-editorial theories, he thought many editors shirked their task: "An editor should stride the world like Tamburlaine," he wrote once in exasperation, "not shilly-shally like Hamlet!"

He was prolific, his work appearing in all the major bibliographical journals. For the Malone Society he edited Fletcher and Massinger's The Tragedy Sir John van Olden Barnavelt (1980) and (with others) Middleton's A Game at Chess (1990); both editions involved manuscript sources. His January 1989 address to the Bibliographical Society, subsequently published in its journal The Library as "Modern Textual Theories and the Editing of Plays," makes wise strictures on the still-complex issues of the treatment of "accidentals" and "playwright's intentions" and remains pertinent even in the age of computer-assisted multi-textual editing with no priority given to one text over another.

He was a regular friendly, reassuring presence at Shakespearean and bibliographical conferences all over the world, encouraging and befriending younger scholars, and was active in the Bibliographical Society of America, Sharp (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) and the Printing Historical Society. He had attended every World Shakespeare Congress since its founding in 1971; his paper for this year's congress, in Prague, was read by a colleague.

In recent years he frequently returned to New Zealand. He was twice married and divorced, and his partner in recent years was Joy Gamby.

What distinguishes Howard-Hill's bibliographical work is not only its daunting scale, but the quality of the data he provided. He insisted on seeing every item included for himself, often travelling to small-town libraries in Britain to hunt for elusive items and pore through long-neglected local periodicals. By the conclusion of the project he calculated he had visited during a 10-year period over 300 libraries, some in very remote places (many now closed). His British Book Trade Dissertations to 1980 (1998) complements his magnum opus, the great Index to British Literary Bibliography.

A lover of opera, especially Verdi, a bon vivant, and cat lover, over 6ft 2in tall, he had the appearance of a rugby player: such a well-built man bent over a laptop – he preferred the smallest possible – made an incongruous sight. Colleagues found him a generous friend, but he is known to far more people through his scholarship. He wrote of the great bibliographer WW Greg: "I never met Greg. I was 26 and still in New Zealand when he died in 1959. But I have known him by his works for 50 years; was there a better way?"

Trevor Howard Howard-Hill, Shakespearean scholar: born Lower Hutt, New Zealand 17 October 1933; Professor of English, and then C Wallace Martin Professor, University of South Carolina 1977-1999 (Emeritus); married firstly Penelope Ann Din (marriage dissolved; two daughters), secondly Dorothy Disterheft (marriage dissolved; one son); died Columbia, South Carolina 1 June 2011.