Collaborations between Faculty and Special Collections Librarians in Inquiry-Driven Classes

An article in

portal: Libraries and the Academy

Volume 11, Number 1, January 2011

E-ISSN: 1530-7131 Print ISSN: 1531-2542

discusses the collaboration between an English professor and Special Collections librarian in Information Literacy. Summary to come…



Letters of Joseph d’Hémery in Electronic Enlightenment

The great cat massacre by Robert Darnton (chapter 4) refers to a policeman called Joseph d’Hémery who investigated not only 18th century philosophical books and the booksellers who sold them, but also the philosophers themselves. Gallica does not have his files digitized (yet?) but d’Hémery’s 14 letters to Nicolas René Berryer de Ravenoville and Chrétien Guillaume de Lamoignon de Malesherbes dated 1753-1764 are included in Electronic Enlightenment. If your library does not subscribe to EE, ask your librarian. What a rich source of information for 18th century studies and a fascinating historical figure.

Is it enough?

I have been compiling my thoughts on the Oxford-produced database of correspondence Electronic Enlightenment in order to write a critical review of the collection for the Charleston Advisor.

As an aside, in case you didn’t realize it, Stanford University’s Visualization of the Republic of Letters project was based on the letters from Electronic Enlightenment (EE).

The letters in EE are extracted from modern critical editions (published by Oxford University Press and other scholarly / academic presses) and manually keyed into a database. Since EE is not based on original manuscripts, there are no digital images of the letters; only text.

Contrast the EE project to something like Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) which offers only the digital image of the original manuscript, or a very early edition if available. There are no text files for readers to rely on; no help with the awkward fonts or various typographical errors.

Which type of database is more useful in the classroom? Does it depend on the classroom? Does it matter whether it’s literature being studied or history? Should we librarians and scholars press companies to offer both images and text, and what would be the cost? If I’m correct, the projects that are based on keyed-in text (such as the Women’s Writers Project based at Brown University) generally start out as scholarly projects funded by granting agencies. Eventually if the money dries up, they usually go subscription-based, assuming there is enough demand. EE is a little bit like that, although I’m not sure whether there was ever an initial grant. It was intended as a scholarly project. ECCO, on the other hand, I think was intended to fill in the collection gaps at universities with thin historical collections. Both have their uses, but is it enough to offer only images, or only text?


I recently joined SHARP-L (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing List-serv) and am finding it so worthwhile. In a recent thread, a post-doctoral fellow at Ghent University in Belgium, Yuri Cowan, reflected on her recent experiences teaching 2nd year undergraduate students “Elements of material bibliography and print culture” at the University of Toronto. Her class, which consisted of 100 students (wow!) was given a final assignment consisting of a bibliographical description of a pre-1800 book accompanied by a reflective essay. One of the students “noted a mysterious stain on a page halfway through an eighteenth-century medical texts [sic], a stain which looked suspiciously like blood, and in her reflective essay she ventured that the book might actually have been referred to during a dissection or anatomy lesson.  Was she right?  Who knows?  and anyway that stain was certainly not part of the history of the book’s production.  Yet the fact of her seizing upon that mysterious stain shows that the inclusion of the history of reading and use, and of the social history of print culture, has real pedagogical value in the classroom, if only because it encourages attention to detail and a sense of the ways in which the material book is shaped not only by its making, but by its subsequent use and reuse.”

The value of joining this list-serv is already evident. The value and ways of using primary sources in the classroom are becoming clearer!

Digital texts companion site

Two weeks in the making and I am finally finishing off the first digital text in my companion site located at There is only one text in it at the moment and I’ll work on the formatting of the site, but I’m happy to report some progress. It’s been weeks of wrangling with a web hosting company, installing, installing and computer hardware issues. Voltaire’s La traité sur la tolérance is the first text. Why that one? Believe it or not, it is not as long as a lot of Voltaire’s other works. It also signifies a turn for the philosophes of the 18th century …

Read and comment on the text!

Primary documents

Since creating this blog and having some discussion with teachers here and elsewhere about the challenges of using primary documents in the classroom, I’ve begun a preliminary search for techniques or tools that might ease the discomfort that students have in approaching the primary source. The reaction to the sources in La pensée des lumières from a 3rd year philosophy course was “cool,” followed by “and what now?” I get that – it’s not obvious.

To this end, I found some worksheets (from the US National Archives) for documenting the attributes of various types of primary sources. I can see a worksheet being useful in having students think broadly about the source and documenting all of the components of it; not only those which have an obvious interest. Examples of other features might be typeface, personal notes written on the source, conflicting information in the source itself, misspellings, personal names who may or may not be researchable, etc…. the worksheets could also be used as a first step in a transcription project which uses a defined protocol such as the TEI.

All of the worksheets can be found here.


I am also really interested in the thematic organization of primary documents which can provide a structure for students. A good example on the history of electricity in the 18th and 19th centuries here.