The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, 1769-1794

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Among the very fine presentations I enjoyed at Material Cultures 2010 in Edinburgh this summer was a demonstration of The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, 1769-1794 database. As the project’s subtitle, “Mapping the Trade of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel” indicates, this tool uses the business records of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), a Swiss publishing house to map the output and flow of the works it published and disseminated across Enlightenment Europe. When the project is completed (target summer 2011), it will be made freely available, affording a significant resource to those working in literature, history, Enlightenment Studies, print culture, and bibliography. As the project description notes, previous scholars have studied these archives, but prior projects have tended to focus on segments of the available material; this project and its database “charts the totality of the STN’s trade with all of Europe.”

The project director Professor Simon Burrows (University of Leeds) and his colleague Dr. Mark Curran who has been based in Switzerland to extract and prepare the input of data also demonstrated the database at SHARP 2010 in Helsinki, where I had the opportunity to speak at length with them. I soon saw not only immense value in the project for students and scholars whose work involved this period, but the database’s structure offers an ideal model for creating other digital databases of publishers’ business records and archives.

EMOB will be keeping abreast of this project’s progress, but one can also follow their work directly at the French Book Trade project’s blog.

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5 Responses to “The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, 1769-1794”

  1. Anna Battigelli Says:

    This is the kind of tool that advances an understanding of the complexity of book history at a glance. Its page on book history promises that it will provide information on booksellers, papermakers, writers, authors, carters, bankers, financial agents, politicians, among other professions. I look forward to learning more about this promising project.

  2. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Yes, absolutely, Anna. That it is able to identify individual purchasers by name and locale also makes it an invaluable tool for work on history of reading and markets.

    The latest post on the project’s blog provides a map of all of Rousseau’s books sold by the Societe Typographique de Neuchatel. It’s interesting how Dublin sales overshadow those of sales in London–and there’s much else of interest too from just this one map.

  3. markcurran Says:

    Thanks Eleanor, much appreciated,

    Anna, in the name of managing expectations, I should point out that for all the papermakers, doctors, watchmakers etc… we have fairly limited information – their location, the numbers of letters they sent to and received from the STN, the dates they were in correspondence etc… So the data is great for reconstructing the various networks of the STN, and how they evolved over time – but it has its limitations, certainly compared to the rich book sales data.

    Actually, I think I should write a blog about the professions data, as it was there that we started constructing the database. What seemed simple never was – people migrate between different partnerships, change addresses, and have unclear job descriptions like ‘ministre’ (religious or political?). They live in towns that can’t be easily be identified, and send letters in handwriting that can’t be read. One dossier has the profession simply given as ‘charlatan’. The whole process of squeezing the information into a series of fields and tables seemed to say a lot about the difficulties of the digital humanities.

    • Anna Battigelli Says:

      Mark:
      I agree with Eleanor: we’d like to hear this narrative with specific attention to how fields or categories seem to break down or intermingle. I understand that the information may be limited, but the way the site maps information out makes it seem likely that valuable connections can be detected. Hope to hear more!

  4. Eleanor Shevlin Says:

    Thanks, Mark. We’d love to hear more about the challenges you’ve faced and are facing in constructing and completing this database. The construction of fields alone is often one that receives little attention until one begins to construct such a resource–or one begins to use such a tool. The careful thought that has been devoted to your project enhances its value beyond the clearly highly significant subject matter it contains.

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