By Gail Kern Paster and Barbara A. Mowat
The news of Jim Harner’s death in May 2016 was distressing to any number of his academic and scholarly admirers—students, alums, faculty, and administrators at Texas A&M University; researchers and teachers who depend heavily on his Literary Research Guide and his On Compiling an Annotated Bibliography, along with the thousands of others for whom the World Shakespeare Bibliography (WSB) is an essential research and teaching tool; the worldwide community of scholars who make up the WSB’s International Committee of Correspondents, many of whom had worked with Jim since 1989; and, of course, the current editor and associate editor of the WSB, Laura Estill and Krista L. May. Jim’s death hit us with a special sadness and poignancy, in large part because we shared with him the years of alternating exhilaration and despair that eventuated in the wonders of what is now the WSB.
When Jim took over as Shakespeare Quarterly’s bibliographer, his dream was to create a digitized version of the bibliography. The bibliography had been part of SQ since the quarterly’s inception in 1950—first serving as the final few pages of its fourth annual issue, then taking over that fourth issue, and then, under Harrison Meserole, Jim’s predecessor, becoming the quarterly’s fifth annual issue, which grew larger and larger with each passing year. Meserole had moved the creation of the bibliography from the typewriter to the computer, but Jim became convinced that we needed to find a way to allow researchers to access the bibliography digitally.
Jim’s first hurdle was to persuade us that this was feasible and worthwhile. Looking back, we could easily be embarrassed by our hesitation in the face of his prophetic enthusiasm, except that at that time the Web was in its extreme infancy and 5¼ inch floppy disks were, among other things, well, floppy. We’re proud to say that by 1999, a collaboration with Cambridge University Press had produced several CD-ROMs, each containing a number of years of WSB material. The CD-ROMs were great—the first won a Choice Outstanding Academic Book for 1997—but neither we nor Cambridge UP could solve the problem of how to make them affordable. So Jim began the nerve-wracking process of locating a digital publisher for a possible online bibliography. After several false starts, we found in Johns Hopkins University Press a wonderful host for what became the WSB Online (as it was known then). By that time, we had come to know Jim and had learned to love him, in a way unmatched in the usual academic and scholarly dealings.
It’s hard to imagine the Shakespeare world today without the WSB. It won the British Library Association’s Besterman Medal for outstanding bibliography in 1997 and the Besterman-McColvin medal as outstanding reference work in 2001. Of course, for those whose teaching and research depend on it, the WSB exceeds any such tangible awards, and it’s easy to forget the sweat, tears, and money that its inception demanded. Jim wrote in 2013, in a letter to Michael Witmore, director of the Folger, “I have invested a good bit of my academic career in the Bibliography”—a rather extreme understatement, in our opinion—and he went on to praise Estill, whom he rightly trusted to take over the WSB and “to enhance its international reputation.” It’s clear from another letter that he wrote in 2013, this one to us, that his goal from the start had been to digitize the bibliography: “I still remember the night Harry Meserole called to inquire if I would be interested in moving to Texas A&M to take over the editorship of the WSB. Doing so was a bibliographer’s dream: inheriting an internationally recognized reference work and having the support from the Folger, SQ, and Texas A&M to move the WSB into the digital age.”
After his retirement in 2013, Jim had much less time than he had counted on to “‘mak[e] a very clean break from academia’” and to “become a ‘full-time grandfather’” (as he told a reporter for the Texas A&M school newspaper, The Battalion). But we can testify to the fact that as a bibliographer, a Shakespearean, and a pioneering digital humanist, he died after achieving maximum success, and, however much we will miss him, he left us with a living digital monument to the memory of a truly wonderful man.
This tribute was published in Volume 67, Number 2 of Shakespeare Quarterly. Gail Kern Paster is Director Emerita of the Folger Shakespeare Library and Editor of Shakespeare Quarterly. Barbara Mowat is Director of Research Emerita at the Folger Shakespeare Library, Editor of the Folger Library Shakespeare Editions, and Consulting Editor for Shakespeare Quarterly.