In June 1976, at a London conference jointly sponsored by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies and the British Library planning began for the "Eighteenth Century Short Title Catalogue." The aim of the original project was to create a machine-readable union catalogue of books, pamphlets and other ephemeral material printed in English-speaking countries from 1701 to 1800.
"An ESTC team was established at the British Library in 1977, under the direction of Robin Alston, and began work on the Library's extensive holdings of in-scope material. By 1978, when Robin Alston and Mervyn Jannetta published Bibliography, Machine-Readable Cataloguing and the ESTC, there were already more than fifty contributors to the file including Göttingen State & University Library (Germany). In 1978, Henry Snyder was appointed to direct the ESTC project in North America. An American cataloguing team was established in 1979, and the North American Imprints Project (NAIP) began at the American Antiquarian Society in 1980. The International Committee of the ESTC (IESTC) was established in 1980, with a membership drawn from the UK and the USA, chaired by the British Library. The ESTC file was soon available online, from 1980 via the British Library BLAISE system and from 1981 in the US Research Libraries Group RLIN system. The file was published on microfiche in 1983, and the first CD-ROM edition appeared in 1996.
"In 1987, with the agreement of the Bibliographical Society and the Modern Language Association of America, the International Committee approved the extension of the database to cover the period from the beginning of printing in the British Isles (ca. 1472) to 1700. The file changed its name to the 'English Short Title Catalogue', thereby keeping its well-known acronym. The USA team began cataloguing pre-1701 material in 1989, joined in the mid-1990s by the British Library team, and the resulting records were made available in the RLIN file from 1994. These records were also included in the CD-ROM 2nd edition (1998) and 3rd edition (2003).
"In 1992, IESTC approved a further extension of the file to include serial publications. The USA team began work in 1994 on the cataloguing of serials within the scope of ESTC."
In August 2019 the ESTC website stated that it contained records of over 480,000 items published between 1473 and 1800, mainly, but not exclusively in English, and published mainly in the British Isles and North America, from the collections of the British Library and over 2,000 other libraries.
In October 1978, early the development of the project the British Library published Bibliography, Machine Readable Cataloguing and the ESTC. A Summary History of the Eighteenth Century Short Title Catalogue: Working Metthods, Cataloguing Rules, A Catalogue of the Works of Alexander Pope Printed between 1711 and 1800 in the British Library by R. C. Alston & M. J. Jannetta. My copy of this work is cloth-bound and limited to 20 copies with a printed list of the recipients bound iin.