Database covers peaks and troughs of poetry for pounds 23,500

ONE OF the most expensive compact disk sets in the world was launched at the Royal Festival Hall in London yesterday, and it makes no more noise than a gasp from the librarian who learns the price is at least pounds 23,500.

The English Poetry Full-Text database will contain almost every known line of English poetry from AD600 to 1900, a total of 1,350 poets. Yesterday's launch was for the first disk in what will, when it is complete next summer, become a series of four. It contains a fairly random selection of poets, with a bias towards the 19th century. A cursory examination is enough to reveal that the reason most have never been heard of is that at least 1,000 of them are truly dreadful.

'To me, that's the great feature of it, as a research tool,' Dr Daniel Karlin, a member of the database editorial board, said. 'It's much more democratic than a normal research tool. Normally, you get asked only about peaks of literature. Here you can see the wide swamps between.'

The database can be searched in some very sophisticated ways. Dr Karlin points out that it will be possible to find every reference to Venus and Adonis in 10 minutes at most. A student could plot the fashionability of particular themes and words throughout the 1,300 years covered with no trouble. Searches for a particular phrase or line of poetry are simplicity itself. The first firm order for the database came from a public library in Australia, which receives many queries of that sort.

The search software runs on personal computers under Microsoft Windows, so the equipment needed to view the disks costs less than a tenth of the disks themselves. Chadwyck-Healey justifies the price on the the grounds that as many as 70 people were employed on the research and collation of texts, not counting the keying-in and proof reading, which were mostly done in the Far East.

Twenty copies have been sold in England already, but interest in the database is not confined to English-speaking countries - at least 200 copies are being tried out around the world.

The five members of the editorial board, who chose the poets and the texts, are not to be rewarded for their labours with free copies - they have not even been offered a discount, Dr Karlin said.