Project History

The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe (FBTEE) project was initiated by Professor Simon Burrows. He conceived the idea in 2004, while examining the rolling stock inventories, order books and other accounting records of the Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN) while searching for traces of scandalous pamphlets against Marie-Antoinette. The STN documents, housed in the Bibliothèque publique et universitaire de Neuchâtel, convinced him of the feasibility of creating a database. It would record the STN’s entire client network, giving professional and place data for each client (as recorded in the BPUN’s handlist of clients and card index of manuscripts); log the books that were sent or received each day identifying where they went or came from; and give detailed bibliographic information on every edition traded, including a subject categorisation, and indicators of legal status. What remained unclear was exactly how the different sorts of surviving documents, none of which covered the entire history of the STN, fitted together. Clearly there was a more limited project, involving the stock inventories and order books. But was it possible to run a larger one using the mysterious, complex but much richer looking ‘Brouillards’, ‘Mains courantes’ and ‘Journals’? If so, how long would it take, and how were they to be approached?

So, two years later, Simon Burrows invited Dr Mark Curran to accompany him on a week long pilot project to Neuchâtel. From that moment, the FBTEE project has been a highly collaborative small-group project, involving collaborative practices and a consultative management style. Over five thousand e-mails have been exchanged between participants and there have been many hours of fruitful discussion from which key ideas have evolved. And though in general the team have found that two or three minds are ten times better than one, there have also been a number of key ideas and roles that have come from or been developed by one individual. In some projects, singling out individuals can be invidious and best avoided. However, as this project has had at all times a single Research Fellow, and its technicians have been employed sequentially and performed clearly distinct roles, the Principal Investigator feels it appropriate and a particular pleasure to use this history to single out what in his view are some of their most important contributions.

First on board was Mark Curran. In the pilot trip to Neuchâtel, he and Simon Burrows ran time trials, sounded the content of the various documents, ran spreadsheet and time trials, took estimates of the volume of material and established that the mysterious ‘Brouillards’, ‘Mains courantes’ and ‘Journals’ were all the same type of document. But it was Mark who had the eureka moment and provided the final piece of the jigsaw, by modelling how the different documents fitted together in the day to day business of the STN. The ‘Brouillards’ were ‘Day Books’ recording all financial accounting transactions and hence served as a point of reference to other records. His hypothesis was tested against the empirical evidence gathered from the documents, and was confirmed against Jacques Rychner’s article on the STN. Two years later it was reconfirmed against some of the accounting books that the STN sold and presumably used. In this sense it was Mark who ‘cracked’ the archival enigma, enabling him and Simon to much better conceptualise, extend and explain the project and design their research methodologies.

Mark’s reward for his insight was being listed as ‘named research assistant’ on an AHRC grant application for a four-year project and, when it was successful, an appointment as Research Fellow on the project from 1 June 2007. Within three months of the start date, after a brief set-up phase, he was off to Neuchâtel, where he remained throughout his time on the project. As an added bonus there were almost two years of arduous data entry and interpretation, followed by many months collating bibliographic records. This in itself was a phenomenal achievement. Working at a distance from the Principal Investigator, faced with potentially treacherous sources that required rigorous and consistent interpretation, he worked with considerable autonomy, designing his own systems and standards for identifying and verifying books traded from the STN’s potentially ambiguous bibliographic data. This was no mundane data entry task! In this role he was also responsible for road testing and fine-tuning the data entry system, in liaison with the project’s information technician. All of this was undertaken with enthusiasm and good cheer, and a vision of future rewards.

Mark’s second greatest ‘eureka’ moment was perhaps in November 2010 when he hit upon the idea of extending the ‘Options’ menus. The first ‘Options’ menu – a filter by source type – had been added very early to the on line database interface for data integrity reasons. However, the team had not immediately realised the possibility of applying the idea more widely. What led to the plethora of options menus in today’s database, was Mark’s sudden realisation that the options menu might be used to filter illegal books. Both Simon and Mark instantly realised the power of his elegant suggestion as a means for dealing with a number of other data interpretation issues they had long been discussing. Within minutes they had produced a shortlist of the ‘Options’ menus found in the final version of the database.

A further important contribution, this time for the future, was his suggestion that the book trade ‘transactions’ recorded in the database ought to be relabelled as ‘Events’. Hence as we and others take the project’s work forward using other sources and archives, the ‘Event’ is the bibliometric data building block that will be used. So, for example, instead of recording in the notes, that an edition appeared in Fauche-Borel’s 1787 catalogue, it would instead be recorded as a ‘catalogue’ event. A confiscation at customs might be a ‘confiscation’ event. The database locates book trade events (mostly sales) in time and space. Mark’s conclusion was the logical corollary. It was a very simple, very powerful observation.

Mark’s work as Munby Fellowship in Bibliography at Cambridge, which he began on leaving the project on 1 October 2011, has been facilitated by work he undertook on the FBTEE project, in managing communications with other digital projects, as well as running a blog; structuring and preparing / editing / writing much of the website material; and developing the project’s ‘visual identity’ as used in talks and presentations.

Finally he was responsible for finding and identifying the ‘Rosetta Stone’ by which he was able to crack the STN agent Durand’s codes – but that is a story for his own publications.

The third team member was Dr Sarah Kattau, the database designer who advised on the research grant application following the pilot project. The technical aspects of the application were written by Sarah, who worked in the Leeds Electronic Text Centre (LETC), and her line manager, Dr Peter Millican, Head of the LETC and Fellow of Hertford College, Oxford. The resulting proposal was rated A+ by the AHRC, with the technical appendix singled out for special praise. Simon Burrows, who was to devote 30% of his time to the project, was duly awarded £355,485 for a four year project to create an online database of the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe using the STN archive.

Sarah’s greatest contributions to the FBTEE project were the structure of the database and the data editor. The project began with a set-up phase that included a number of discussions concerning the database design. In two four-hour forensic interrogations she unlocked the many problem issues of the data in our sources and the purpose of the database. Her main intellectual challenges concerned translating the historical understanding that Simon and Mark had already developed into an enforceable database structure. As part of this process, Sarah spent a week in Neuchâtel, together with Simon and Mark, to allow her to get a more concrete understanding of the different manuscripts and their inter-relationships. It also provided an opportunity for her to consider more deeply the software requirements of the data entry and editing software to be used by Mark as she was able to see, in practice, how he would be working with the archival material.

It was soon evident to Sarah that the task of describing client and bibliographic data was going to be much more complex and time-consuming than anyone had anticipated. Major conceptual challenges were associated with turning implicit historical understanding into an explicit logical database structure. The design of the database, and the enforcement of its rules, needed to be balanced against the partial knowledge available in the manuscripts and the realities of partial data entry. The data editor itself was in fact a significant software project in its own right. The custom-built software needed to provide a user-friendly, fast interface for inserting, editing and merging complex data, as well as providing the ability to import and export data to/from the EndNote database that was being used in the meantime. Software updates needed to be remotely and automatically handled without affecting the data that had already been entered. A high emphasis on usability was necessary as Sarah and Mark were working in different countries with no opportunity for face-to-face demonstrations. This significantly delayed the completion of the final data editor, which in turn delayed the start of data entry work on the STN’s accounting sources. Fortunately, it was possible to record some other data during this time. Better still, the result of Sarah’s labours was a Rolls-Royce of a database and data editor, with structures easily transferrable to other projects. With a total of one hundred tables, it was a beauty to behold.

One of the key lessons that the project can usefully impart to the profession – Sarah notes – is the strategic necessity of building database and software design into the conception of the project as a major milestone in its own right, rather than treating it as a merely subsidiary and technical task.

The complexity of the database was not the only thing that was more time-consuming than initially anticipated. The bibliographic data itself also proved more problematic than had been expected on the basis of the pilot study, though this only became fully visible several months into the data entry process. In particular, it soon transpired that the STN traded single volumes of multi-volume works much more than had been indicated by existing literature and the pilot project. This made quantifying unit sales more problematic and meant resources had to be diverted towards identifying the precise editions traded (as the number of volumes could vary considerably between editions). In addition, the STN’s accounts often recorded the same book under multiple and occasionally cryptic short titles. These cases had to be identified and collated retrospectively, which again required resourcing. Thus to avoid falling further behind, the task of categorising the books in the database was transferred from Mark to Simon, who had to set aside a full extra year of his time in 2010 to 2011 to work on this and implementing the new options menus. This afforded Mark time for bibliographic research, tidying and collating tidying and working on his written outputs.

A further corollary of this decision to concentrate Mark Curran’s efforts on data entry and bibliographic work was Mark’s request in October 2010, to trade monograph outputs, which was duly granted. Mark would now work on a study of the publishing strategies and physical book trade of the STN, drawing on his greater knowledge of their accounting sources. Simon’s monograph – at that stage the more speculative – would consider the reception and dissemination of the enlightenment (drawing on knowledge gained in categorisation work and designing and testing the online interface). It is hoped that both books will appear in the course of 2014-2015 with Continuum books.

Meanwhile, a significant change of personnel also occurred on the IT side. Having completed work on the database structure and data editor, Sarah decided to resign from the LETC. She was succeeded by Amyas Merivale. It is to Amyas that the project owes the elegant and intuitive on-line interface for the database. It incorporates a large variety of complex search functions, complemented by the ‘Options’ menus, into a highly user-friendly click-through format. The ‘Options’ a clear if necessary example of project creep, exist as advanced filters that allow users to interrogate complex subsets of data and compensate for biases in the database. Unfortunately, they must all be consulted by every search, and this slows the performance of the database. For this reason, Amyas also worked tirelessly behind the scenes to improve the speed of the database. This subtle and unseen contribution was not the least of his services to users. Nor was his commencement of the gradual paring down of database tables from the original 100 to just 30, as it became clear which were most essential.

In partnership with Simon, Amyas also developed a bespoke ‘Keyword Editor’ tool to facilitate the book categorisation process. Both of the ‘Options’ and ‘Keyword Editor’ were conceived and developed to meet specific needs arising in the course of the project. Finally, Amyas developed and maintained the project website and facilitated the work of GIS and Visualisations designer, Dr Vincent Hiribarren.

Vincent was the final addition to the team. Initially recruited for his skills at GIS mapping, he was initially employed on an hourly rate by using Simon Burrows’ personal research funds. There had been no provision in the original grant application for GIS, because consultations in 2006 suggested that the software packages then available were either unstable when used online or insufficiently powerful to meet the project’s needs. By 2010 this was no longer the case. Fortunately, Vincent was at that time teaching French eighteenth-century cultural history in a first year course at Leeds, where he was a doctoral student studying West African history. Simon learned in conversation that he had advanced GIS skills developed while teaching in French high schools.

Thus the project acquired in Vincent Hiribarren a GIS designer who was also a native French speaker with a professional interest in the eighteenth-century book trade. It was a great stroke of luck. Over the next year Vincent was involved in the preparation of maps and visualisations. Then, from 1 October 2011, when Amyas voluntarily left the employ of Leeds University and the LETC was discontinued following restructuring, Vincent was contracted to take over the development of the data interface and technical support roles under Simon’s management. He has played an important role in the final editing process; preparing the database for publication; and data preservation work, including learning to write an API from scratch. All the project’s visualisations are his work, as are some of the later refinements of the data interface (the Version History relates whether functions were created or refined by Vincent or Amyas). It is hoped that in due course resourcing may become available for him to prepare French language support materials for the project. Throughout his time with the project, Vincent has shown an instinctive and informed awareness of what might be needed, often creating resources or acquiring new skills on his own initiative. His input has been essential to the final completion of the project.

Discussions on how to develop the database, including possibilities for expanding its scope and content and for developing its technologies have been ongoing throughout the project. Future plans include the development of tools for use in other bibliometric projects; linking or exporting STN data to other projects and resources (including library catalogues); translating the database into French; as well as content-based research database projects on the eighteenth century or even other periods. The publication of the STN database thus marks only the end of the first stage in a much longer process, one that may involve many more scholars and multiple projects.

From January 2013, the further development of the project has been conducted at the University of Western Sydney, under the leadership of Professor Burrows, and in partnership with the new Digital Humanities Research Group. The project is grateful to the University of Leeds for agreeing to transfer Intellectual Property and Web Hosting of the project to the University of Western Sydney, thus facilitating on-going research. It is grateful to the University of Western Sydney for on-going support.

This brief history does little justice to the unstinting enthusiasm and input of all the members of the French Book Trade project team, past and present. Nor does it adequately explain the complexity of roles, tasks and conceptualisation involved or the intensive consultation process that has facilitated progress. It also lacks space to highlight the dozens of others who have helped, advised and supported the team. But it does highlight some of the pivotal points and contributions on our journey and the moments when our collaboration has taken a fresh turn. The STN database is above all a work of intellectual collaboration involving a team of five over five years. It has taught above all, that two minds are many times better than one. None of us could have contemplated this project on our own.

Simon Burrows, (with technical input from Sarah Kattau), Leeds, 16 June 2012.
[Updated 28 January 2014]