The Newberry Library digitizes 30,000 French Revolution pamphlets

An anti-royalist pamphlet on the execution of Louis XVI, ca. 1793.

By Frances Van de Vel

“I wait for the head of the murderer Louis XVI.”

The accompanying illustration in black ink vividly depicts a guillotine execution and seems delicately faded.  Some creases vein the letters like paper wrinkles, chronicling an aged pamphlet. Yet the force of the message, written in French in ca. 1793, is as vigorous as ever. Strident epithets such as “traitor” and “the enemy of the nation” infuse bitter hatred into this anti-royalist tract.

It’s just one of the 30,000 French Revolution political pamphlets housed at Chicago’s Newberry Library, which boasts one of the largest Revolution-era pamphlet collections outside of Paris.

In order to make this impressive assemblage more easily accessible, the Newberry Library has kicked off “Voices of the Revolution,” an initiative to digitize the pamphlets on the French Revolution, published between 1780 and 1810.

“The Newberry serves thousands of on-site researchers every year,” said Jennifer Thom, Director of Digital Initiatives and Services at the Newberry. “And our location in Chicago, a major international transportation hub, makes travel to the originals comparatively easy for many scholars. Nevertheless, for many researchers, traveling long distances to study this massive collection has not been possible.”

In 2009, the Newberry tried to address that challenge with a  grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), which allowed the Newberry to meticulously catalog 22,000 pamphlets. As soon as the project was completed, the library witnessed a considerable increase in use of the collection, including frequent on-site consultation and regular requests for digital copies.

“[That] was a major milestone in making this collection more accessible to many more users,” said Thom. “We knew, though, that geographic distance was still a significant challenge and it was clear that even deeper access into the full text of the pamphlets was in scholarly demand.”

Digitization turned out to be the ideal solution. So the Newberry teamed up with the George A. Smathers Libraries at the University of Florida in a pilot project called “French Pamphlet Planning Project: An International Collaboration for Improvement of Collection Access”. By June 2015, they had successfully digitized 1,430 pamphlets through the Internet Archive website.

Due to the subsequent high research activity in that database and the newly acquired knowledge of securely digitizing fragile content, the Newberry started considering a more ambitious plan: processing approximately 510,000 pages worth of French Revolution pamphlets – the scope of “Voices of the Revolution.”

“The goal is to make the collection as widely accessible as possible to researchers around the globe and to open up the full text of the pamphlets for searching,” said Thom. “With this accomplished, we hope to make new kinds of scholarship possible in the digital research environment.”

The Newberry secured a $219,999 grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources to digitize the pamphlets. “Voices of the Revolution” is part of its “Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives Program,” sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Together with 17 other projects, the Newberry’s plan is included in the council’s first cycle of digitization programs.

Louisa Kwasigroch, CLIR’s Director of Development and Outreach, said that the review panel was almost unanimously positive about the Newberry’s proposal.

“They thought that this highly unusual collection of pamphlets would have a huge historical value for not only scholars, but also filmmakers and artists,” said Kwasigroch.

The pamphlets will be digitized on Scribes, the brand name of the  scanning stations at the Internet Archive scanning center in Fort Wayne, Indiana. A flat work station will be used to take care of foldouts and other larger items. The Internet Archive also plans the addition of a Table Top Scribe, a more portable scanner.

Scribes usually scan 5,000 to 10,000 views per day. Every scanned pamphlet needs to pass two quality controls before it is processed via Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, which allows full-text searching of the pamphlet’s content. Finally, the scan is uploaded to the Internet Archive website. Both the Digital Public Library of America and the Newberry’s online catalog will feature links to the pamphlets.

Thom added: “Scholars can browse pamphlets by topics, read and flip through the pages using the BookReader viewer, mark items as favorites, share items through social media. Scholars will [also] be able to download the pamphlets free of charge.”

All downloaded pamphlets must be credited to the Newberry Library and must feature the call number, so other researchers can easily track it down in the database.

“Voices of the Revolution” is scheduled to be completed by June 2017.

Photo at top: An anti-royalist pamphlet applauding the scheduled execution of Louis XVI, ca. 1793. (The Newberry Library)