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Books, Big Data and Enlightenment

Date and Time: 
Thursday, November 3, 2016. 12:00 PM - 01:30 PM
Meeting Location: 
Pigott Hall, Room 252
Meeting Description: 

Please join us for a co-sponsored event with the Digital Humanities Focal Group. This two-part presentation by Simon Burrows and Jason Ensor (WSU) is entitled "Books, Big Data and Enlightenment."

Lunch will be served. The event is open to everyone, but so that we can order the right amount of food, RSVP here:

See abstracts below:

Simon Burrows, "The Enlightenment Text: An Industrial Scale Re-Reading of late Eighteenth-Century Print Culture"

For almost a century, cultural historians have sought to understand what the French read before the revolution, and how they read it. The cultural turn and rise of interest in the public sphere and book history more generally have given these efforts new impetus, abetted by the work of luminaries such as Robert Darnton in the United States and Roger Chartier in France.  Building on Darnton’s celebrated and innovative study of Forbidden Bestsellers of Prerevolutionary France, my own digital project on the French book trade in Enlightenment Europe (FBTEE) promised to give us representative new insights into the pan-European trade of a typical extra-territorial French publisher, the Swiss based Société typographique de Neuchâtel (STN). Publishers such as the STN had long been seen as fundamental to understanding the enlightenment book trade, since their extra-territoriality gave them licence to print and disseminate books banned within the Bourbon realm. The online FBTEE database has been hailed as a ‘prodigious achievement’ by Darnton and credited, along with Stanford’s ‘Mapping the Republic of Letters’ project, with bringing the ‘historical profession into the age of interactive digital technologies and GIS technology’ by Jeremy Caradonna. Yet for all its many accolades and achievements, the FBTEE database has exposed the inherent biases of the Swiss, Protestant STN, calling its representativeness into question as never before. Clearly large swathes of the French-language publishing industry’s output were hardly represented in its silos, and these ranged from the hardcore atheistic propaganda produced in the Netherlands and Britain through much enlightenment scientific output, to the mass-produced Catholic devotional works that spewed forth from French and Belgian presses. How then can we use the digital technologies of FBTEE to gain a better sense of the totality of print and its implications? One way to respond to this conundrum is to take a linked ‘big data’ approach, expanding the dataset beyond the 450,000 books in the FBTEE-1 database and triangulating them against a more representative range of new sources, embracing all sectors of the French book trade, including the officially tolerated books, the pirate sector and the clandestine trade. This is what FBTEE’s successor project, ‘Mapping Print, Charting Enlightenment’ is setting out to achieve, abetted by generous funding from Western Sydney University and the Australian Research Council, and strategic partnerships with other key players in the eighteenth-century digital humanities space, including Mapping the Republic of Letters, the Electronic Enlightenment, and Radboud University’s MEDIATE project. When complete, the new database will contain information on around 5,000,000 of the estimated 50 million French language books produced and circulating in Europe in the final two decades before the French revolution, while providing facilities to link this data to other cultural datasets. This paper will discuss this industrial scale survey is to be conceptualised and achieved, before revealing some of  the first fruits of this research and how it is recharting the literary field of the late ancien regime.


Dr. Jason Ensor, "Cloudy with a Chance of Data: Seeking (the) Enlightenment in Software"

The concept of a ‘big data' approach to print culture studies sounds sexy enough when considered abstractly in terms of gathering, comparing and enriching data from multiple sources. But what does it actually mean in practice? If, as Q.D. Leavis in 'Fiction and the Reading Public' first touched upon in 1932, narratives encode the cultural, political, economic and technological structures and values of the times they are created in, can the same be said about databases? How might the beliefs and proclivities of a particular time shape cultural datasets and the kinds of questions that can be asked of them? This presentation describes and reflects upon the technical and analytical measures taken to integrate two databases of the French novel. It demonstrates the step-changes in conceptual thinking about the data gathered in 'The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe' project and the scholarly challenges linked to merging an existing highly-structured data landscape with new datasets — most notably the database of 'French Prose Fiction 1700-1800' developed by Professor Angus Martin and his late international collaborators, Richard Frautschi and Vivienne Mylne.

Simon Burrows is Professor of Digital Humanities and Professor in History at Western Sydney University, Australia. He holds his  DPhil from Oxford and has also worked at the Universities of Waikato (NZ) and Leeds (UK).He is best known for his path-breaking digital project on ‘The French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe’ and is now lead investigator on its successor project, ‘Mapping Print, Charting Enlightenment’, which is funded by the Australian Research Council. He is also an investigator on Jason Ensor’s ARCHivER project, and author of French Exile Journalism and European Politics, 1792-1814 (2000); Blackmail, Scandal and Revolution: London’s French Libellistes, 1758-1792 (2006) and A King’s Ransom: The Life of Charles Théveneau de Morande, Blackmailer, Scandalmonger and Master-Spy (2010). Simon has co-edited important collections on Press Politics and the Public Sphere (2002); Cultural Transfers (2010); and The Chevalier d’Eon and his Worlds (2010), and is currently adding the finishing touches to his monograph entitled Enlightenment Bestsellers which is scheduled for publication in 2017. He can be contacted at

Dr Jason Ensor is a researcher, and research and technical development manager, at Western Sydney University where he has spent the past three years developing the digital humanities research program. He is also Director of Electronic Resources for the international Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP, re-elected 2015) and a Founding Editorial Board member for 'The Anthem Studies in Book History, Publishing and Print Culture' (United Kingdom) and 'DHCommons' (United States). He is a Chief Investigator (CI-2) with Professor Simon Burrows (CI-1) on the 'Mapping Print, Charting Enlightenment' Australian Research Council Discovery Project (AUD $460K, 2016-2017) and Project Lead (PI-1) with Professor Simon Burrows (PI-2) on the 'Angus & Robertson Collection for Humanities and Education Research (Archiver)' Australian National Data Service High-Value Collection Project (AUD $160K, 2016-2017). Jason regularly publishes on matters related to research impact and digital scholarship. He was Conference Director for the ADHO 'Global Digital Humanities' 2015 conference and is Co-Convenor (with Simon Burrows) of SHARP’s 2018 conference in Sydney. Jason's latest book, 'Angus & Robertson and the British Trade in Australian Books, 1930–1970: The Getting of Bookselling Wisdom' (2012), examines the literary, economic and cultural interdependence between Australian and British publishers during the twentieth century. His development portfolio can be viewed online at:

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