Simon Burrows and Glenn Roe, Eds. Digitizing Enlightenment: Digital Humanities and the Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Studies.

digitizing enlightenment: digital humanities and the transformation of eighteenth-century studies

Simon Burrows and Glenn Roe, Eds. Digitizing Enlightenment: Digital Humanities and the Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Studies. Liverpool University Press on behalf of Voltaire Foundation, University of Oxford, 2020. 472 p. ISBN 978-1-78962-194-5, USD 99.99 (Paperback).

Simon Burrows and Glenn Roe’s edited collection, Digitizing Enlightenment: Digital Humanities and the Transformation of Eighteenth-Century Studies, is a necessary reminder of the huge strides made by the field of eighteenth-century studies when employing the transformative tools of digital humanities. Impressive in its breath, this volume offers an in-depth view of several institutional projects, as well as sample DH applications to the study of the period. Ambitiously arguing that “the eighteenth century may … offer the perfect laboratory for applying digital technologies” (11), the editors have gathered contributions on major digitization efforts and DH projects undertaken in the past decade, many of them interrelated or involving transnational and cross-disciplinary collaborations, that have transformed in a relatively short period of time our understanding of the Enlightenment.

The first section of the collection, “Digital Projects, Past and Present,” provides details on eight large institutional initiatives. Robert Morrissey and Glenn Roe’s chapter explains the challenges faced by the editors of the American and French Research on the Treasury of the French Language initiative (ARTFL) in building a digital edition of Diderot and D’Alembert’s monumental Encyclopédie. The authors’ efforts of cross-referencing, for instance, receive particular attention, in light of their goal of creating meaningful “‘maps’ of knowledge relationships” (47) through the use of topic modelling and next generation search, retrieval, and analysis systems, such as PhiloLogic4. In the next chapter, Nicholas Cronk narrates the emergence of the Electronic Enlightenment database (EE), the most wide-ranging online collection of edited correspondence of the early modern period, and highlights the benefits of such an enterprise in terms of rapid updating of existing epistolary collections, analyzing the social networks they entail, plotting geographic data for senders and receivers, or using data mining to survey the corpus. Similarly, Dan Edelstein details the launching of the Stanford University’s Mapping the Republic of Letters project in an engaging account that underscores the development of powerful visualization tools, such as Palladio, or the efforts to create an interoperable metadata schema for early modern prosopography, such as Procope. Howard Hotson’s chapter presents the Early Modern Letters Online (EMLO), made available by the Cultures of Knowledge at Oxford, as a model in collaboration among various institutions, experts, and repositories, attentively describing its various phases of development and the creation of online editing tools that allow researchers to better interrogate the corpus. In his chapter, Jeffrey S. Ravel narrates the history of the Comédie-Française Registers Project (CFRP), from its inception as a digitizing initiative to its current use of sophisticated search and visualization tools that allow users to cross-reference the database’s categories, and outlines the project’s directions of future development and pedagogical use. Angus Martin and Richard Frautschi’s chapter describes the evolution of the Bibliographie du genre romanesque français, 1751-1800 project from paper (MMF) to digital format (MMF2), and the tortuous work of designing a database that allows for easy identification of ownership, bestselling titles, patterns of production and dissemination, and purchaser preferences. Simon Burrows’ chapter details the avatars of the French Book Trade in Enlightenment Europe (FBTEE) database, an ongoing project that maps the trade of the Société Typographique de Neuchâtel (STN), and the efforts to create data analysis tools that allow for sophisticated searches of book distribution patterns, reception trends, and genre prevalence, to name just a few. Finally, Alicia Montoya’s chapter describes the Middlebrow Enlightenment: Disseminating Ideas, Authors, and Texts in Europe, 1665-1830 (MEDIATE) project, an open access database housing data from catalogues of private libraries sold at auction in the Dutch Republic, France, and the British Isles between 1665 and 1830, its BIBLIO (Bibliography of Individually-Owned Book and Library Inventories Online) offspring, and their efforts at interoperability with other databases, such as FBTEE.

Particularly interesting for this reader, the second section of the collection, “Digital Methods and Innovations,” elaborates on the creation of digital tools, protocols for data entry, and other affordances specifically applicable to Enlightenment studies. Examples range from interactive and exploratory data visualization applications like Tableau, RofLViz, Corrispondenza, Ink, Knot, Palladio, Breve, and Data Pen (Catherine Nicole Coleman’s chapter) to topic modelling the French pre-revolutionary press (Elizabeth Andrews Bond and Robert M. Bond’s chapter) to mapping geospatial data with GeoViz, Recogito, or Edinburgh Geoparser (Katherine McDonough’s chapter) to designing protocols for database building that allow for better analysis and interoperability (Laure Philip’s chapter) to applying prosopographical approaches to the study of salon networks (Melanie Conroy and Chloe Summers Edmondson’s chapter) to using algorithms to track text reuse in ECCO, such as PhiloLine (Clovis Gladstone and Charles Cooney’s chapter). Superb in their range, these chapters highlight the capability of such tailored tools and/or digital approaches to unveil new data hidden in existing texts or repositories, or to allow for innovative analyses and visually compelling illustrations.

While the book itself would have benefitted from a color display of the visualizations provided, the publishers did try to address this issue by making them available online, at, where the readers can also access the preface and introduction to the book. It is also of note that, although most of the chapters included here relate to the French Enlightenment, the contributors’ emphasis on its networks of cultural exchange and the interoperability of these projects underscore their larger, European focus. An indispensable resource for any startup digital projects on the period, this collection is a truly enlightening compendium of successful DH initiatives and tools that have expanded our understanding of the period and our ability to explore it in novel and intellectually stimulating ways.

Ileana Baird, Zayed University