The French Revolution Will Be Digitized

When you think about the French Revolution, what do you see? Perhaps a guillotine, a king and queen executed, or the storming of the Bastille prison in Paris. I certainly had these vivid images in mind when I became manager of a project, generously funded by the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, to catalog the Newberry’s extensive French Revolutionary pamphlet collections.

The Newberry’s French Revolution and Louis XVI Trial and Execution Collections collectively contain more than 30,000 pamphlets published between 1780 and 1810. A few years after the completion of the cataloging project, in 2013, the Newberry received an additional grant from the Digitizing Hidden Special Collections and Archives program administered by CLIR to digitize both collections.

Our project partner, Internet Archive, recently completed digitizing the French Revolutionary pamphlets. They are free to read, download, and repurpose with no restrictions.

With this new level of accessibility for our pamphlets, anyone with an Internet connection can explore texts that move beyond the sensational guillotine and illuminate the daily struggles and victories of the new French republic and its citizens.

Some of my favorite pamphlets document the social aspects of the Revolution. As many French citizens struggled with widespread food shortages and rising food prices, they may have turned to instructions for storing and cooking potatoes, with recipes for potato bread and simple mashed potatoes, or supported a plan by a government official to increase production of France’s native beechnut oil as a less-costly alternative to olive oil.

As French political institutions became more secularized, some citizens may have perused a proposal for a system of naming newborn children based on the date and time of birth and the seasonal rhythm of nature, rather than naming them after Catholic saints. (Although this system didn’t seem to gain much traction, one member of our project team discovered an instance of the secular and religious combined: a baby girl baptized as Jeanne et Artichaut, or Joan Artichoke.)

The French pamphlet collections also contain examples of diversion and entertainment, such as an anonymously authored play dramatizing the trial and execution of Louis XVI and a piece of dance music entitled La Guillotinne with lyrics that have nothing to do with that apparatus of the Revolution. (But who can resist a sensational title?)

Because of the careful, efficient work of our partners at Internet Archive, we are now able to add one more pamphlet collection to our digitization project, which is scheduled to wrap up this summer: a collection of 3,000 French political pamphlets published primarily between 1560 and 1653. These pamphlets cover the French Wars of Religion waged between Catholics and Protestants and the rise of absolute monarchy under the “Sun King” Louis XIV.

Read all of our digitized French pamphlets in our Internet Archive collection, and stay up-to-date on project news on our Tumblr blog Voices of the Revolution. We would love to hear about your favorites, too!

By Jessica Grzegorski, Principal Cataloging Librarian