Digitization is the Order of the Day at the Newberry Library


There are many great resources available to historians of the French Revolution outside of France. The Newberry Library in Chicago is one of them. Fortunately for scholars of the revolution, the Newberry has just completed a massive undertaking. They have digitized more than 30,000 pamphlets and placed them online for free. To help draw attention to this amazing resource, we interviewed Jennifer Thom, the Director of Digital Initiatives and Services at the Newberry Library. She offers amazing insight into not only the digitization process, but also the strengths and pitfalls of such a project.

Picture of Jennifer Thom.
Jennifer Thom

The digitization of your French Revolution pamphlet collection was a huge undertaking. Can you talk about the pamphlet collection that your team has digitized?

Published between 1780 and 1810, the 30,000+ pamphlets of Voices of the Revolution represent an unparalleled corpus of material charting the political, social, and religious history of the French Revolution. For the project, two Newberry collections, the French Revolution Collection and the Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collection, have been digitized in their entirety. The pamphlets are of particular interest to scholars of the French Revolution, but their value is not limited to specialists of French or European history. Both ephemeral and enduring, the pamphlets enrich the study of the impact of the French Revolution in the United States and elsewhere, advancing the understanding of “revolution” and attitudes about “radicals,” “conservatives,” and the “bourgeoisie,” and shed light on debates about the meaning of citizenship.

The massive French Revolution Collection contains pamphlets that represent the opinions of all factions that opposed and defended the monarchy during the turbulent period from 1789 to 1799 and chronicle the events—both dramatic and quotidian—of the First Republic. It contains anonymously authored pamphlets, as well as those with known authors, including many written under pseudonyms.

The Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collection consists of pamphlets that chronicle the events leading up to and following the abolition of the French monarchy in late 1792. The pamphlets contain evidence for and against the king, moral and political reflections on judging and executing a monarch, and public opinion on both sides of the issue. Included are opinions of Convention deputies (Marat, Saint-Just, Robespierre, Condorcet, Desmoulins); copies of incriminating documents seized from a safe at the Tuileries Palace in 1792; the formal accusation of the king, his defense by De Seze, the roll call of votes on sentencing; and pro and contra opinions by various writers, including the American Thomas Paine and Englishman William Pitt.

The project budget was based on estimates for both set up and per page costs. Now that we are at the end of the digitization phase of the project, we have some remaining funds and we are thrilled to be able to include several additional and related collections (that you will not yet see online at Internet Archive).

These collections include:

French Laws on Censorship

The Newberry’s John M. Wing Collection contains a unique assemblage of French laws concerning regulation of the press from 1513-1829. There are about 1,200 items, all individually cataloged. Most of the items are royal and parliamentary proclamations.

Two documents from the Newberry collection of French Revolution pamphlet.

Publishers’ Prospectuses and Catalogs

This unique assemblage chronicles French printing and publishing activities from 1650-1850. Both Parisian and rare provincial publishers are represented among some 700 book prospectuses in pamphlet form. Most of these prospectuses are French. 

Title page of a book from the Newberry collection of Revolution pamphlets.

Collection of Odes, Letters, etc., Relating to Louis XV 

This collection of 476 titles is bound into 10 volumes. The item has an accession number from 1957 and has been cataloged at the item-level. Many of the odes are small in size and have been very skillfully framed within a larger sheet of paper for binding. The collection includes manuscript material and manuscript pagination.

Title pages of two French political pamphlets from the Newberry Library.

Early French Political Pamphlets

This collection of about 3,000 French political pamphlets published between 1560 to 1653 documents a period of religious wars and the establishment of the absolute monarchy.  The bulk of the collection was purchased in the late 1940s from New York book dealer H.P. Kraus.

Title pages of two French political pamphlets from the Newberry Library.

What inspired the team to do this digitization work, and what did the digitization process entail?

The Voices of the Revolution project grew out of two previous projects:

  1. A 2009 CLIR Cataloging Hidden Collections grant called, “French Pamphlet Collections at the Newberry Library,” through which we did item-level cataloging for the FRC Collection, the Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collection, the Publishers’ Prospectuses and Catalogs, and a collection of earlier pamphlets (not including in the Voices project) that was assembled by the order of Saint-Sulpice in the 19th century. At the time, the CLIR grants did not support digitization projects, but we knew that with this excellent, item-level description (combined with the good condition, rather uniform size, and the demand from researchers), that the collections would be well-suited to a large-scale, outsource digitization project.
  2. A 2013 project called, “French Pamphlet Planning Project: An International Collaboration for Improvement of Collection Access”. Through this project, several institutions with significant French pamphlet holdings did surveys of their material and we discussed strategies for collaboration. Since the Newberry had already cataloged our collections through the CLIR grant, rather than conduct a survey of materials, we used our portion of grant funds for a 1,400-item pilot project that allowed us to work out kinks in the workflow. This pilot formed the basis for our Voices project plan.

Did you draw inspiration from any other digital collections when deciding how to categorize your collections?

The categories you see in the Internet Archive metadata records are drawn directly from the Library of Congress subject heading in the item-level catalog records.  This rich subject analysis was one of our key rationales for that 2009 CLIR cataloging grant and we are proud of the work accomplished by that team. We kept a project blog during the project, and there are many entries about “cataloging” that you may be interested in reading.

These also provide really good information about the interesting finds within the collections.

What are the collection’s strengths and weaknesses to your mind?

I think the strength of the collection comes more from the assembled corpus of material than any individual pamphlet. This strength is something we are building on in the grant by not only putting the digital images up at Internet Archive but also providing a complete data set (coming soon!) for scholarly research. Sarah Sussman (Curator, French and Italian Collections at Stanford and Head, International and Area Studies Resource Group) summed up this strength of the collection (and project) as part of her excellent letter-of-support for the project:

Third, and most exciting, in an effort to offer researchers what they need, the Newberry proposes to make the metadata, OCR, and image files available as datasets to scholars so that they can use them in digital humanities research projects. This last action means that scholars can not only use the different public portals for access and discovery, but that they can download the files to run them through software programs created for their individual projects, or use one of the growing number of open source programs built with digital humanities research in mind. They will be able to look at the Revolution in new ways by analyzing and visualizing the contents of the pamphlets. For example, since the Newberry Library has found multiple editions of the same pamphlet published in Paris and provincial presses, scholars might explore how news of a single event, or interest in a specific issue, travelled around France. With the image files, they will be able to investigate issues around the history of ephemeral publications, or of printing in Revolutionary France. The metadata files will allow for more efficient sorting or grouping of the pamphlets by topic, or by author or printer. They will create a single large corpus that researchers can use, and the central availability of the files will allow teams of researchers from different institutions to work together on collaborative projects.

For collection weaknesses, I do wish the Newberry collection had more pamphlets from the time period leading up to the Revolution. We are very strong in the revolution era, and also for the period 1560 to 1653, but the period of roughly 1650-1780 is not as comprehensive.

What would you say are some of the collections most prized or surprising treasures?

One of the team’s favorites is this pamphlet, with a very original (and kooky) scheme for naming children…. After vegetables! 

You may enjoy looking at the “Notable pamphlets” tag on the project blog for other staff favorites.

What limitations do digital projects like yours have?

We would have loved to include the serials portion of the French Revolution Collection (there are 23,000 issues of 180 periodicals published between 1780 and 1810), but the bindings were just too tight to digitize without considerable loss of content or damage to the materials.

Also, OCR is always a challenge for older materials, and peculiarities of early printing can make it difficult for software to discern characters and produce readable digital output. We know that the OCR/data sets will not be perfect, but it is certainly worthwhile, and opens the text to worlds of new access, though scholars will need to be creative, persistent, and attentive!

What are the values and dangers of digital projects like this one?

The value to accessing the content of these pamphlets cannot be overstated. Digital access opens doors for all sorts of new scholarly exploration.

In terms of dangers, I think there are two that are most frequently brought up:

  1. Damage to originals: The Newberry’s Digital Initiatives and Services department works closely with the Conservation department to ensure that materials are not harmed during the photography process. We constantly balance the needs of access through digital means with future needs to access the original material.
  2. Reliance on digital images rather than consulting original artifacts: There has been a lot of ink spilled in the past about “digitization versus using ‘real’ artifacts.” Digitization is really just a very powerful access tool that should be used in conjunction with the original artifacts. They both serve their purposes. It would be impossible (or at least very unwise) to study the printing history of these pamphlets without ever looking at them. It would be equally impossible (or at least very time-consuming) to attempt to analyze and visualize the 750,000+ (and still growing) pages of text in these pamphlets without the benefit of the digital versions. I do think there continues to be a danger that some scholars will ignore collections unless and until they are online and easy to access, so potentially, a danger of a project like this is that other outstanding materials may be overlooked.

What’s next for your team now that the digitization phase is complete?

With digitization almost complete, we are moving ahead with the outreach components of the grant. We are already working with several area university professors who are integrating the digitized pamphlets into their classes and doing some translations. We will be building a translation tool and doing more of this in the fall. We will also be using the translation tool and sponsoring a “translat-a-thon” for high school and adult education French classes. The translations themselves will be used in a gallery/website that will be geared at showing the importance of and interest in these collections to an English language audience.

We will also soon announce details for our “Newberry Open Data Grant” using the French pamphlet data sets.

4 thoughts on “Digitization is the Order of the Day at the Newberry Library

  1. The catalogue of these pamphlets is so well done. The search function for keywords and terms is very helpful and I love how it’s organized. Makes researching much more efficient. As someone who has researched in French archives for several years, this catalogue and collection was a welcome change of pace to the sometimes incomplete or vague inventories that are often used in French repositories. French historians of the Revolution will find this a new, easily accessible tool for research! Thank you! Also the naming pamphlet is also one of my favorites as a historian of childhood.


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