Review of The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, 1769-1794: Mapping the Trade of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel

Mapping the history of ideas against the actual reading practices of early modern Europeans has intrigued (and troubled) historians at least since Roger Chartier focused our attention on the need to consider the reader, not just the text. With the launch of The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe, 1769-1794: Mapping the Trade of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (FBTEE), project directors Simon Burrows and Mark Curran offer stunning new opportunities to probe this old problem. Although only recently publicly launched in June 2012, the site has already attracted wide renown thanks to its soft launch on H-France listserv in September 2010 and through persistent outreach like Burrows and Curran’s July 2011 presentation at the Library of Congress.

FBTEE provides the first broad digital access to the archives of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), a Swiss publisher and bookseller active in the eighteenth century. Burrows has colorfully described STN as “an eighteenth-century Amazon[.com],” but STN owes its historical significance primarily to its status as the largest and most complete extant archive of Enlightenment publishing, not because it dominated eighteenth-century book sales in the way that Amazon does today. Because it operated beyond the reach of French censors, STN is a particularly important resource for understanding the significance and circulation of illegal works, the so-called “philosophical” books that ranged from audacious attacks on royal and religious authority to outright pornography (tartly dismissed by Rousseau as books “to be read with one hand”[1]), the two genres increasingly one and the same as the ancien régime collapsed. Yet because STN also dealt in uncontroversial literature, often as a counterfeit publisher, its extensive records have proven valuable to historians interested in tracing book sales and ownership where other, traditional evidence like probate inventories generally fails to shed much light.

From the traditional historian’s perspective, the significance of FBTEE cannot be overstated. STN in its analog form has provided fodder for countless dissertations and books, most notably the career-making oeuvre of Robert Darnton (and indeed it’s quite surprising to find his name absent from the project’s advisory board, even though his Corpus of Clandestine Literature in France, 1769-1789 (Norton, 1995) comprises a portion of FBTEE’s data). That scholarship in turn has supplied the necessary backbone for still more works on Enlightenment culture and plugged gaps in the work of every scholar looking for a quick figure or bit of insight on the significance of a period text. FBTEE dramatically redraws this scholarly landscape, and the days of researchers routinely mining Darnton’s and others’ work for such evidence have likely ended. From the perspective of interpretation, of course, it’s an entirely different story. FBTEE taken alone offers little in the way of analysis, preferring instead to allow users to draw their own conclusions and integrate its rich data into their own work. Indeed it is difficult to imagine even advanced researchers grasping the significance of FBTEE without a thorough grounding in the history of the book that already relies on the STN archives.

FBTEE provides users with a powerful interface offering a variety of ways to approach and interrogate the STN archival data. Users can browse, search, and visualize Enlightenment books and their peregrinations. Mapping Tissot’s Essai sur les maladies des gens du monde, for example, reveals a broad swath of purchasers far from major cities, suggesting that this decidedly urbane text appealed to readers beyond urban elites. Visitors unfamiliar with STN or digital tools will especially appreciate the project’s six introductory videos with over an hour of total running time. In these charming offerings Burrows cheerfully sets about the thankless task of coaxing his technophobic colleagues into gaining a toehold on FBTEE’s rich data. Burrows and Curran’s thoughtful set of “designer notes” likewise offer a wonderful window into the minds of the project directors and developers, describing in detail all aspects of FBTEE such as the arduous data entry process. In design and mission, FBTEE follows in the footsteps of the acclaimed César database which has tracked eighteenth-century theatrical works and performances since the late 1990s.[2] Unlike César, however, FBTEE showcases the intervening decade’s rise of open-source software (and philosophy). Its use of the D3.js maps and visualization library results in an especially polished appearance.

From a usability standpoint, the site makes certain compromises in the name of broader accessibility that may in fact limit its utility for some researchers. For example, the project directors decided to assign English-language keywords to works, which interjects an unnecessary layer of translation for much of FBTEE’s target audience, who undoubtedly will think first in terms of the French originals, regardless of mother tongue. Fortunately Burrows and Curran also offer the ability to search by “Parisian category.” The site sports an interface incongruously reminiscent of desktop software in a concession perhaps aimed at attracting an audience unfamiliar with web-based tools. The pervasive use of mile-long drop-downs prohibits quick searches for known works. Predictive text inputs would provide the same effect, but less intrusively. It’s not readily apparent what the FBTEE team used for its bibliographic metadata model, and its book records are lamentably only exportable via Thomson Reuters’s narrow and brittle RIS format. Finally, there’s no application programming interface (API) to allow third parties easily to build upon Burrows and Curran’s hard work.

I am eager to add, however, that all of these quibbles are more than compensated by Burrows and Curran’s generous decision to offer the entire FBTEE dataset for download, albeit subject to an ominously lengthy end user license agreement (EULA). Fortunately the gist of the EULA is that the University of Leeds, the site’s hosting institution, grants free use of the FBTEE data for teaching, research, and other non-profit activities, and that the project directors expect that the site (and one of Darnton’s contributing works) be credited in any resulting scholarship. This act of intellectual generosity is all the more unusual coming from humanists, who overwhelmingly view research data as wholly proprietary.

The FBTEE project isn’t yet finished, in the sense that Burrows and Curran have ambitious plans for expanding its scope and reach. They write that they’re interested in adding “a web-based interface through which students and scholars will be able to input their own research data and findings on the production, dissemination, or reception of print in eighteenth-century Europe and the Americas.”[3] They might also consider the integration of a collaborative bibliography of scholarship related to STN. In addition to underscoring the significance of FBTEE, such a bibliography would also highlight the important new research — like Jeffrey Freedman’s Books Without Borders in Enlightenment Europe: French Cosmopolitanism and German Literary Markets (University of Pennsylvania, 2012) and Curran’s own Atheism, Religion and Enlightenment in Pre-Revolutionary Europe (Boydell and Brewer, 2012) — already made possible by this pathbreaking project.

  1. [1] Robert Darnton, The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 222.
  2. [2] Calendrier électronique des spectacles sous l’ancien régime est sous la révolutionhttp://www.cesar.org.uk
  3. [3] “A Platform for Teaching and Further Research”, n.d., http://chop.leeds.ac.uk/stn/database/platform.html

About Sean Takats

Sean Takats is Associate Professor of History at George Mason University and Director of Research Projects at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. His research focuses on early modern France, the Enlightenment, and the digital humanities. At the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, Takats has directed Zotero, the popular research software platform, since 2006. He has also led other projects on text mining and the history of science. Takats is also currently co-director of The Encyclopedia of Diderot and D’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project, hosted at the University of Michigan. Takats is author of The Expert Cook in Enlightenment France (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). His current research extends his interest in occupational expertise to the colonial world, where he explores the practices of collecting and synthesizing a wide range of exotic knowledge, ranging from botany to commerce to medicine.