Stanford Libraries online archive expands access to French Revolution treasures

Images and textual documentation of the French Revolution's early years are available for the first time to anyone with an Internet connection.

Participants, spectators and critics produced scores of historical documents during the French Revolution.   These items are now available in the French Revolution Digital Archive, a digital collection recently released by Stanford Libraries.

FRDA brings together two foundational sources for French Revolution research: the Archives parlementaires, a day-to-day record of parliamentary debates and discussions held between 1789 and 1794, and Images de la Révolution française, a vast visual corpus from the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France

The archive was a multiyear endeavor and was developed in response to expressed need by scholars for improved access to their sources, according to Sarah Sussman, curator of the French and Italian Collections at Stanford Libraries.    

“FRDA allows a scholar to explore the material like they never could before,” said Dan Edelstein, a professor of French and Italian at Stanford.  The sophisticated search capability built for the archive allows users to search within one collection or across both the visual and text collections, which was not previously possible.

In a few clicks of the mouse, Edelstein said, the digital collection “stands a high chance of pushing the scholarship in new directions by making archives that were once hard to use, now easily accessible, searchable, and reusable.”

The archive contains over 14,000 individual visual items, primarily prints, but also illustrations, medals, coins and other artifacts, making FRDA the most complete searchable digital archive of French Revolution images currently available.

Vivid in color and in meaning, the images include stately portraits, depictions of what became a bloody symbol of the French Revolution – the guillotine – and satirical drawings like an aristocratic hydra monster mounting an attack on the people and French Guard.

The Images were originally offered on laserdisc and the Archives parlementaires appeared in print and microfilm formats.  But the rapid advancements in technology over the years actually hindered scholarly contact with these materials. “The obsolescence of laserdisc technology meant the loss of access to descriptive metadata as well as certain images themselves,” University Librarian Michael Keller said.

FRDA restores these items, making them available online for scholars, students, educators and history enthusiasts to explore and study.

Research opportunities abound

While FRDA might first appeal to scholars of French studies, Sussman suggested the archive can be a source across many disciplines.  “Art historians will find the Images a fascinating and rich source for studying the approaches to art used during the Revolution, while scholars of political theory can analyze an expansive collection of propaganda and speeches as well as politically oriented illustrations,” she said.

Since FRDA’s launch, Edelstein, whose research centers on 18th century France, has begun work with the digitized Archives Parlementaires around the rise of neoclassicism during the French Revolution.

“Karl Marx famously quipped that the French revolutionaries ‘performed the task of their time … in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases,’ but when I searched for references to Classical authors, rulers and heroes, I found that it was only after the declaration of a French republic, in Sept. 1792, that the national deputies began peppering their speeches with Classical references,” Edelstein said.

With the deep search options available, Edelstein continued his research, this time creating a separate “Plutarch index” named after the 1st–century Greek scholar, to see if the deputies were mostly referencing the Greek and Roman heroes who form the subject of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives.

“Indeed they were,” Edelstein said.  “I also extracted references to Brutus and Caesar, since these were so common during the trial of Louis XVI.”

Edelstein graphed the data pulled from FRDA to help illustrate that it was not the outbreak of the Revolution in 1789 that resulted in neoclassical-mania, but rather the advent of the French Republic, three years later.

Libraries in the digital age

Keller said he believes digital collections like FRDA are core to the mission of academic libraries. “We are harnessing technology to make data and information available for scholars to study, defend or discover the original material in new and thoughtful ways.”

Stanford Libraries is at the forefront of this endeavor and recently secured grant funding to explore the interoperability of major digital collections globally so the information exchange across these collections can occur.

According to Keller, Stanford Libraries has the ability to retrieve leaves from one manuscript, spread across the digital collections of 30 institutions, and bring them together in a single search so scholars can study what remains of the original without having to leave their offices. “We’re very close to making that happen and that’s what scholars rely on us to do, acquire materials and information channels that promote their teaching, learning and research,” he said.