REVIEW: Johnson on STN’s 18th Century French Book Trade Database

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“Europeans Purchasing a Slave Woman, late 18th cent.,” Guillaume Raynal, Histoire Philosophique et Politique . . . des Europeens dans les Deux Indes (Geneva, 1780), vol. 7, p. 377. (Copy at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University) Image Reference H005 as shown on http://www.slaveryimages.org, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.

From The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe website:

The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe project uses database technology to map the trade of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), a celebrated Swiss publishing house that operated between 1769 and 1794.

As the STN sold the works of other publishers alongside its own editions, their archives can be considered a representative source for studying the history of the book trade and dissemination of ideas in the late Enlightenment.

Using state of the art database, web interface and GIS technology, the project provides a user-friendly resource for use by scholars, teachers and students of French literature and history, book history, the Enlightenment and bibliography more generally…

…As the database structure is ideally constituted for other studies of the production, distribution and dissemination and reception of printed works, there are plans for adapting it for use by other scholars as a platform and portal for further work on the book trade. For latest information on the project and future plans to develop the database into a platform for other researchers, consult the project blog at: frenchbooktrade.wordpress.com.

The website is fairly intuitive and the designers have provided introductory videos that walk you through using the database. Search results can be viewed by sales destinations or supply origins and they are available in chart or map form. And you can download the results of a search–or the entire database.

Of special interest to me was finding out how useful the database might be for mapping travel writing about Africa or the Americas as distributed by the Société. Broad geographic regions have keywords available–Africa (21 hits), Caribbean (22 hits), North America (47 hits).  More specific locations like Saint-Domingue, Ile de Bourbon, and Mauritius also appear, although others (say Guadeloupe, Martinique, or New France) do not, which was disappointing.  [UPDATE:  Simon Burrows, Principal Investigator of the project, notes in a comment below that "any book which deals mostly or entirely with just one or two colonies should be tagged as such."]

Searching does produce a set of related keywords–North America produced the related keyword ‘slavery‘ which had 11 results. (Note: Click to read the designer’s notes on methodology regarding keywords).

I found that knowing what text I was looking for was key to producing results. To that end, powerhouse tomes like Raynal‘s Histoire (which produced this dramatic looking map) and writing familiar to historians of slavery like Girod-Chantrans‘s Voyage d’un Suisse (map) do make an appearance. The results will fascinate anyone interested in histories of race in France, or the ways representations of Africans, slavery, and plantation life spread throughout Europe during these years.

I can also see how the images produced would be useful for teaching–perhaps in the first part of an early African American or Afro-Atlantic history course and paired with the first chapter of Jennifer Morgan’s Laboring Women (or this article).

What about you? Any ideas about how mapping books and other texts might be useful for studies of slavery, race, and colonization? Have you used the database and found it useful?

(cross-posted from Diaspora Hypertext, the Blog)

UPDATED on 7/20/2012:   The post was updated to show that Saint-Domingue does appear as a search term, along with Ile de Bourbon and Mauritius.  Thank you to Simon Burrows for the correction.

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5 thoughts on “REVIEW: Johnson on STN’s 18th Century French Book Trade Database

  1. Thanks for a great and thoughtful review of our project (and the first that I have yet seen). It’s great to see that the database is proving useful to scholars in so many fields. So far almost 1,000 people have visited the database in a little over three weeks since publication, and that too is exciting. Just on a point of information – especially since it was your only negative comment, Saint-Domingue does exist as a keyword with three works listed (as do other French keywords, such as Ile de Bourbon and Mauritius, for example). You are nevertheless right that there was an issue with deciding what place names and how many to include as tags on the various books in the database, particularly as we had many dozens of ‘Voyages’ describing trips to multiple regions and places. It was not feasible to read them and name every location – I spent a year categorising 3,600 titles – nor was it practical (or helpful) to mention every place within a region, so we did have to amalgamate, limit the total numbers of place tags, and draw our data from contents pages, reviews and other sources. Nevertheless, any book which deals mostly or entirely with just one or two colonies should be tagged as such. Simon Burrows, Principal Investigator, The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe project, University of Leeds.

    • Simon: Thank you for the correction. I will also add an update to the post.

      And please do take this post as a positive review. I commend you–the research involved was and is quite daunting! There just is no easy way to make the transition from analog to digital. I’m seeing more and more conversations on what to do with metadata–especially how to categorize material, how to create useful search paradigms–and how difficult it is. Standardizing search terms in the digital version is confounded by printed texts that use a wide variety of terms with as many spellings to describe any one place (i.e. Saint-Domingue, Saint Domingue, French Santo Domingo). This is especially true for texts produced during the 18th century.

      Many thanks to you and your team for all of your hard work. The database is a rich and important resource. I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next and which other projects it will inspire.

  2. Hi Jessica. Just a note of further thanks for the clarification – and it really is a splendid review on a great site. As you say the issues involved in metadata and finding common standards are very challenging and come up at all the Digital Humanities events I have attended. And taxonomies and ontologies are perhaps the most challenging of all. We hope that the data structures of the French Book Trade project will be widely adopted in bibliometric work and diffusion studies – certainly that would facilitate interoperability. I am also working on a way to streamline and simplify the taxonomic system we developed so it can be used in other eighteenth-century projects. Any developments will be announced on our project blog over the coming months: http://frenchbooktrade.wordpress.com/ – and I’m looking forward to any further comments you might have.

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