From the curator

The French Revolution Digital Archive emerged from the expressed need by scholars of the French Revolution to gain greater and more flexible access to their sources. The French Revolution itself produced scores of documents by participants, spectators, and critics. These materials include texts of all sorts – legal documents, pamphlet literature, belles lettres, musical compositions, and a rich imagery. Dispersed in libraries and archives, hidden in documental series and in short individual pamphlets, this diverse documentary heritage can now be offered to scholars in a digital format. The French Revolution Digital Archive brings together two foundational sources for research: the Archives parlementaires (hereafter AP) and a vast collection of images selected from the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Both of these corpora were included in the important “French Revolution Research Collection” produced by the BnF and the Pergamon Press for the bicentennial of the Revolution in 1989. The AP appeared in microfilm format and the Images were offered on laserdisc.

The Archives parlementaires is a chronologically-ordered edited collection of sources of archival and published source on the French Revolution It was conceived in the mid 19th century as a definitive record of parliamentary deliberations, with both intellectual and political aims, as described in the preface to the second edition:

What a most useful and brilliant school for the friends of liberty, whose numbers in Europe are increasing daily, what a most pleasant method of instruction for them, than a work in which they can collect all that our intellectuals, publicists, legislators, philosophers said and published to regenerate, develop, and complete a revolution whose happy influence has already made itself felt by all peoples!

While the AP started as a curatorial endeavor spearheaded by government archivists, it later became a scholarly project under the direction of leading historians. This massive collection of historical sources was initiated in 1862 at the request of the French legislature, and by 1914 had reached 82 volumes, each around 800 double-columned pages, covering the years 1789-1794. After a long period of dormancy, the project was taken up again in 1962 by the Institut d’histoire de la Revolution française at the Université de Paris I; its progress is ongoing. The current digital archive contains only the first 82 volumes from the first series of the Archives parlementaires, published before the Great War. These volumes roughly cover the first five years of the French Revolution, from the Cahiers des états généraux of 1789 until 15 nivôse an II (4 January 1794). They record the events ranging from the convening of the Estates General through the first half of the Terror.

The Archives parlementaires provide an unparalleled view into the workings of the Revolution through the thoughts and actions of its participants. The work is a day-to-day record of debates and discussions held by the three parliamentary bodies that legislated for France between 1789 and 1794. The first seven volumes of the AP present the Cahiers de doléances sent to the Estates General in 1789. Subsequent volumes draw primarily on official minutes of parliamentary debates, but also include journalistic accounts of the proceedings, speeches prepared for delivery but never presented, as well as letters, reports, and other documents received or reviewed by the assembly. Fragmented power, multiple authorities, and accounts from various and conflicting perspectives further complicate the record. Given the Revolution’s rapid pace, the AP’s detailed and layered chronological organization of Revolutionary sources provides an invaluable narrative to scholars. Over the decades, the AP has come to be accepted by scholars as the functional equivalent of primary documentation, and it is virtually all scholars’ first recourse for research into the deliberative record of the Revolution through 1794.

While the digitized version of the AP offers the most comprehensive way of accessing and analyzing the Revolution’s vast textual production, the French Revolution also produced a rich visual corpus of great importance. Because language was constantly exercised in new ways, because language really mattered to the Revolutionaries, and because events were unprecedented, the image-based record plays a significant role in helping researchers today understand the physical and intellectual universe of the Revolution. In effect, images of speakers, actors, debates and events help enormously to explain what surviving texts mean. Moreover, the visual material and iconography were a way for the revolutionaries to represent themselves and the Revolution while the events were taking place, and to spread their vision of the Revolution to the people of France and the world.

The FRDA provides access to the most complete searchable digital archive of French Revolution images available. Images de la Révolution française is a benchmark image-base undertaken by the Bibliothèque nationale de France on the occasion of the Revolution’s bicentennial in 1989. It aimed to “allow the reader to explore the relationships, articulations and confrontations between the ideas of the Revolution and their metaphorical embodiment, the constant cross-fertilization of ideology and make-believe…” For this project the BnF created over 38,000 separate views of over 14,000 individual images, showing closeups and dividing documents with discrete iconographic materials into appropriate sections. The Images, which were originally offered in analog format on laserdisc, had become extremely difficult to access due to rapid technological change. Within the framework of its digitization programs, the BnF rescanned at high resolution almost half of the images on the laserdisc from the original materials. New JPEG files were created from the original videodisc for the remaining images in the corpus. Now all of these images are available online as part of the FRDA.

Over 14,000 image-based items, primarily prints from the Departement des Estampes et de la Photographie, but also illustrations, medals, coins, and other objects, were selected for inclusion from across the BnF’s departments. Many originally entered the BnF on legal deposit, but others come from important collections acquired in the 19th and early 20th century. Two of these collections deserve special attention. The collection of Michel Hennin is notable not only for its size, but because it includes many prints omitted from the legal deposit that Hennin amassed during his time in Italy working for the Viceroy, Prince Eugène de Beauharnais. The print collection of Carl de Vinck, a Belgian diplomat, grew out of his father’s infatuation in Marie-Antoinette and expanded to focus more generally on visual representations of France during the century from Marie-Antoinette’s marriage to Louis XVI in 1770 until the Paris Commune of 1870.

The images selected for the digital archive concentrate solely on the period from 1787 through 1799, from the years immediately preceding the outbreak of the Revolution through the emergence of Napoleon. Only visual materials directly tied to the Revolution itself are included. While the texts of the AP are primarily of interest to serious students and scholars of the Revolution, these images expand the FRDA’s audience to the general public. The creators of the initial incarnation of the Images anticipated that scholars would use them for their research and teaching purposes, and that the public at large would find in them an important way of learning more about this foundational moment for the French nation.

How does the French Revolution Digital Archive further scholars’ research through the digitized Archives parlementaires and the Images? The French Revolution was a messy and complicated event, and its documentary record reflects this. This project offers scholars new ways of using the old materials in their research by allowing them to search more effectively and efficiently across several years’ worth of key visual and written sources, using both free text and indexed searching.

For the AP, personal names of speakers, dates, as well as the terms appearing in the AP’s published indexes have all been tagged in the text, allowing for more powerful searching capabilities. Search results are displayed so that scholars can more easily contextualize the use of selected terms and efficiently analyze the large body of texts.

The images included in the FRDA are classified by provenance or by subject within the collections of the BnF. Descriptions of the Hennin and De Vinck image collections, which constitute an important part of the FRDA corpus, are found in separate print catalogues. The Images de la Revolution francaise laserdisc constituted an initial stage in the development of an iconographic corpus of the Revolution, bringing these visual materials together into a single collection accessible through highly indexed descriptive metadata using a controlled vocabulary for artists, iconographic genres, places of publications, and subject terms. Unfortunately the obsolescence of laserdisc technology meant the loss of access to this descriptive metadata, as well as to certain images themselves, which became available only through the General Catalog of the BnF. FRDA incorporates this indexed metadata, and expands its research possibilities, by finally restoring access to this coherent corpus of iconographic materials on the French Revolution.

More importantly, scholars will be able to search each collection separately, and across both collections - the Images and the Archives parlementaires. By bringing the French Revolution’s textual and visual representations together virtually into a single curated collection with powerful means to search, analyze, and display the information, scholars and students will be able to advance our knowledge and understanding of this crucial period in world history.

Project team: Stanford

Michael A. Keller
University Librarian
Dan Edelstein
Faculty Advisor
John Haeger
Project Director
Catherine Aster
Project Manager
Tony Calavano
Digitization Lab Manager
Doris Cheung
Production Coordinator
Naomi Dushay
Discovery Engineer
Gary Geisler
Web Application Developer
Jessie Keck
Web Application Developer
Peter Mangiafico
Web Application Developer
Matt Pearson
Image Quality Assurance Specialist
Jon Lavigne
Accessioning Engineer
Sarah Sussman
Curator, French and Italian Collections
Jennifer Vine
User Experience Designer
Glen Worthey
Digital Humanities Librarian

Special thanks are due to the following:

  • Stanford University PhD candidates in History: Katherine McDonough, Heather Otto.
  • Stanford University Libraries, Digital Libraries Systems and Services staff: Ben Albritton, Tom Cramer, Christopher Jesudurai, Charles Kerns, Linda Lam, Lynn McRae, Tony Navarrete, Matt Pearson, Stuart Snydman, Wayne Vanderkuil.
  • Stanford Libraries staff Andrew Herkovic, Casey Mullin, Robert Schwarzwalder, Vitus Tang.

Project team: Bibliothèque nationale de France

President
Bruno Racine
Director
Jacqueline Sanson
Head of Collections
Denis Bruckmann
Director of Services and the Networks
Arnaud Beaufort
Head of Prints and Photographs
Sylvie Aubenas
Marie Thompson
curator, in charge of the project at the Prints and Photographs Department
Corinne Le Bitouzé
curator, 18th Century Collections at the Prints and Photographs Department

Special thanks to the team who between 1987 and 1989 worked on the videodisc "Images de la Révolution française" and made the new project possible.

Thanks are due to the following:

  • Mireille Pouget and François Talbot at the Information Technologies Division of the BnF
  • Reproduction Department of the BnF
  • Dominique Maillet at the Preservation Department of the BnF

Acknowledgements

The FRDA was first conceived in 2006 by Stanford French professor Dan Edelstein, with input from other scholars and librarians, and was launched in spring 2013. It has been supported by grants and collaboration from The Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the ARTFL project, Stanford University Libraries, Stanford University’s Division of Languages, Cultures, and Literatures, Stanford University Department of History, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Use and reproduction

This image(s) is a digital reproduction of works from the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France that are no longer protected by intellectual property rights. The use of these contents for commercial purposes is subject to payment and covered by a license. Commercial use includes the resale of the contents in the form of prepared products or the supply of services. For commercial use, contact: utilisation.commerciale@bnf.fr. The use of these contents for non-commercial purposes is free of charge, subject to compliance with applicable French legislation and notably the inclusion of the source’s statement.

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