Web Magazine for Information Professionals

Continuity and Collaboration: The Online Bach Bibliography

Yo Tomita introduces the single most important online resource for the study of the composer J.S. Bach.

For the majority of musicologists, bibliography is not their main subject of research, but a tool for research, an essential tool to gain quick access to the information with which to pursue their own subject of interest. Bibliography concerns everyone; it is crucially important that we find successfully the most relevant literatures at the earliest possible opportunity, and that we do not miss out any significant research works carried out by other scholars in the field, so that we can get on confidently with the work of our main research interest. However, there is no definitive bibliography as such that will satisfy the needs of every scholar, and hence we all have to make considerable efforts to be knowledgeable in the bibliography of our own specialised areas of research interests in order to guard our own scholarly integrity.

In an ideal world, we can perhaps do away with this laborious process, and move straight on to deal with the adequately short-listed literatures. While few would deny that electronic search techniques mitigate some of the difficulties mentioned above, problems will always remain. The subject of this article concerns the viability of this ideal in general and the ways in which it might and has been achieved with the Online Bach Bibliography. Before discussing how this can be achieved, it will be necessary to identify recent developments in bibliography with respect to my particular project and subject area – namely, Bach - and to discuss future plans to create a more powerful tool that will hopefully appear in the next few years to benefit us all.

Historical Background

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750) is perhaps the most intensely researched composer of Western music. This is clearly reflected in the flood of new publications that deal with his life and works. Taking the tercentenary year of 1985 as an example, there are 751 references that are currently known to me; this means that Bach literatures were appearing then at the rate of two per day. Owing to Bach’s global popularity, research is becoming increasingly specialised and fragmented to the extent that even an established scholar would often find it hard to keep up with the latest developments in research, let alone those assertions and reports of discoveries made many years ago.

Needless to say, it is impractical to manage the sheer quantity of information in this way, especially since a new publication now appears at the rate of one per day. An electronic publication is therefore much better suited for this particular type of project, for only electronically can we maintain quickly and cost-effectively the most up-to-date information, whilst at the same time benefiting from advanced search facilities often available to sift through the vast amount of data

The Online Bach Bibliography and its Strengths

The Online Bach Bibliography was first launched on the Web in May 1997, and ever since it has been updated regularly. It is now being mirrored at the Performing Arts Data Service (PADS) web site at http://www.pads.ahds.ac.uk/bachbib During this period after 1997 many improvements were made to the usability of the bibliography’s facilities, whilst over two thousand new records were added to the database. At present, it contains over 16,400 records of bibliographical references that are considered useful for the scholarly discussions of Bach’s life and works; currently I receive various forms of contributions from fifty scholars from all over the world. Today the Bach bibliography is by far the largest reference resource of its kind, when compared with some of the other main bibliographical resources. Indeed, if we look at the comparative statistics in Table 1 showing the Online Bach Bibliography’s coverage alongside earlier attempts to cover the Bach literature, we see to what extent the online version eclipses those previous attempts.

Table 1: Comparing the scope of bibliographical data on ‘J. S. Bach’

Bibliographical Reference




The on-line Bach Bibliography



plus c.700 of pre-1800 refs

‘Bach-Schrifttums’ series in Bach-Jahrbuch



see Error! Reference source not found. for details

rilm online (via OCLC FirstSearch)



keyword search ‘Bach, Johann Sebastian’

IIMP CD-ROM (reviewed in 1998)



keyword search ‘BACH’

The New Grove, J. S. Bach (1983)



carefully selected

ArticleFirst (via OCLC FirstSearch)



keyword search ‘Bach’

There is no subscription fee to use the Bach Bibliography and it is relatively straightforward to operate the system. To find out the books and articles you need for your study, you can simply key in some keywords—be it the name of the author, or keywords or a short phrase in the title: if you are looking for Bach’s influence on Mozart, for example, what you need to do is simply to type “Mozart” in the title field. In response, the Bach Bibliography will report to you a list of more than 130 literatures.

It also offers some advanced facilities which greatly enhance the speed and usability of information retrieval. With its ‘complex search’, you can smartly short-list the literatures by simply specifying the genre, specific works, or the aspect of discussion, or a combination of these. So you can now search the literatures which exclusively deal with the ‘analytical’ discussion of the ‘Well-Tempered Clavier’ or a ‘theological’ inquest into ‘St Matthew Passion’.

This is made possible by including some additional fields in the database as shown in 2, the features not found in other electronic bibliographies:

Table 2: Additional fields made available in each record




general classification of genre, i.e. vocal, keyboard, instrumental, etc.


Specifying Bach’s works (in 3-letter abbreviation) discussed; see ‘complex search’


Specifying the aspect of discussion in 3-letter abbreviation; see ‘complex search’

Publication type

book, article, thesis, facsimile, music, unpublished paper, review

Language used

Specifying with 3-digit telephone codes: 001=English; 049=German; 033=Dutch...


list of its reviews or author’s own summary in separate publication


date on which the record was first created


date on which the record was last modified


reserved for future use for feedback, comments, etc.

So within the ‘complex search’, you can also combine the search with other filters such as ‘language’ and ‘publication types’. If you are looking for all the facsimile edition of Bach’s vocal works, for instance, what you need to do is to click on ‘vocal’ genre under ‘Music Search’, and then scroll down to find ‘Publication Types’ and click on ‘Facsimiles’. Within a few seconds after pressing the ‘Begin Search’ button, you will see a list of 36 facsimile editions appear on the screen.

When the result of your search is displayed, you can do several things:

  1. you can view the record with further details by clicking on ‘full view’ from where many additional information about the publication can be learnt;
  2. you can list the author’s other publications by clicking on his or her name, which might highlight the related publications by the author that are not picked up by the previous search;
  3. you can search all the other articles in the same volume by clicking the ‘series’, which may show the broader context in which the article was published.

The facilities described so far deal with the information about older literatures that one can retrieve from the database. I also created two other modes of information browsing, namely ‘Essential Collections’ from where you can check both contents and bibliographical details of reference editions and important series and periodicals, and ‘New Publications’ where you learn the news of latest and forthcoming publications. Associated with this is the ‘On-line Review’ of newly published books, which I started from January 2000. The review was conducted in the ways the prospective readers would be able to decide whether or not they should obtain the book for their own study. Unlike rilm where authors’s own summary is given (see Table 1), my review provides a summary of its scholarly contribution with a full list of the works discussed, followed by a critical assessment of the book in 500–1000 words.

Some Faults ?

As this project develops, it is clear that the search engine is an area to be looked into, since there is clearly considerable potential to improve the search techniques currently used by the Bach Bibliography.(1) While it already provides some of the useful facilities outlined above, it does not offer a number of other functions that are also considered helpful, such as the ability to sort the search result alphabetically or chronologically, or to narrow or widen the search, let alone in the order of relevance to the query. As the data grows larger continually, it is essential to implement not only these more sophisticated functions but also more effective searches driven by Artificial Intelligence techniques to offer more intuitive and powerful facilities that emulate the way experts react to the bibliographical information, for example, how they might predict which literatures are more important than the others. In order for an AI program to draw an answer, we need to consider a range of issues that become the basis to build its knowledge, which are tentatively listed in Table 3.

Table 3: Knowledge required for measuring the significance of its scholarly contribution by an AI-driven search

category of knowledge

about the author

about the book

about the article

Knowledge extractable from the existing database

  • publication record
  • participation in NBA project
  • publisher’s prestige by its history of continuity
  • page numbers
  • year of publication
  • number of reviews
  • prestige of the journal by its history of continuity
  • page numbers

Knowledge to be assigned (either manually or by vote) into database

  • specialisation
  • education
  • posts held
  • specific scholarly contributions
  • the number of citation by others
  • prestige of the journal by referee status
  • specific scholarly contributions
  • the number of citation by others

Finally, there is the question of wider accessibility. The Bach Bibliography was currently made available on the Web alone. The Queen’s University Belfast, where the database was stored and the searches carried out, is connected to the rest of the world through the Web by a single JANET connection via Manchester. Though serviceable, the connection could and did fail from time to time. Now that the bibliography is mirrored at the Performing Arts Data Service at the University of Glasgow, the Online Bach Bibliography is ensured its continuing availability, but also improved accessibility whilst also ensuring a faster service for everyone’s benefit.

Future Directions, AI and the Question of International Collaboration

Having identified and examined its main facilities and the areas for further improvements, it is clear there needs to be clear plans for the future to enhance the quality and accessibility of the Bach Bibliography.

In order to carry out a major overhaul, a research grant has been sought. If the bid is successful, the work will commence from next spring focusing on the following points:

20. The expansion of the main bibliographical data by systematically covering the important periodicals published between 1800 and 1900 that have not been properly catalogued in the past, while compiling a critical bibliography of those appeared during the nineteenth century and making it available on-line as ‘special collection’ of the Bach Bibliography where the articles, reviews and advertisements that are considered to be useful for Bach studies will be extracted, critically commented, cross-referenced and indexed.

21. With the aid of an AI programmer (who will be recruited for the duration of two and a half years), the current search engines will be replaced by more sophisticated AI-based modules.

22. A full mirror service will be established from the USA and Japan, in addition to the service at the PADS, whilst also producing a CD-ROM version for those who have no Internet access.

In terms of resource value, the systematic coverage of an important collection of nineteenth-century materials, especially rare items dating from before 1850, will be a hugely significant contribution to scholars who would otherwise have no convenient means of learning about the existence of such source. The selection of periodicals will be carefully made, and advice will be sought from three external advisers to ensure the successful completion of the original objectives.(2) The incorporated data will appear rapidly on the on-line resource via the Web.

The search techniques gained from this project will also be made available on-line as well as in CD-ROM form in order to aid scholars working on many similar projects using text-based applications. With the improved search engine, the searches can be conducted much more efficiently and intuitively. The production of the CD-ROM version will also give access to those not able to use the resource via the Web.

Quite separately, another discussion with a research institution is under way to develop a further extension to this ‘special collection’ by linking the database of early edition with a sample of digitised images. There will be many other possible ways to extend the research resource network in the future, and I am always looking for ideas to do so.

These major renovation works on the Bach Bibliography will surely bring greater benefit to music scholars; yet the project could not have reached anything near success without the collaboration and contributions off the community of Bach scholars everywhere, adding their own resources, knowledge and expertise and with the aid of technology, providing a resource of immense benefit to that community, and one that provides something of an exemplar to ambitious and non-commercial collaborative projects everywhere. If, to address our first question, the perfect bibliography is always something to be aspired to but never perhaps to be attained, it is technology, collaboration and an open and questioning spirit that will at least set us on the path to providing a resource that will be of immense benefit to, in this instance, music scholars worldwide.

(1) The present search engine was developed in 1997 by Malcolm Vincent of Computer-Based Learning Unit at Queen’s University Belfast, to whom I am extremely grateful.

(2) I am grateful to Professor Christoph Wolff of Harvard University, Dr Peter Wollny of Bach-Archiv Leipzig, and Dr Michael Kassler, specialist in the English Bach Movement in the 19th century, for agreeing to act as external advisers for this project.

Author Details


Dr Yo Tomita


Lecturer, Queen’s University Belfast