This blog post was written by Grace Landers, USF Class of 2022, Major: English Literature, Minor: History. Grace has been working at Gleeson Library as a Special Collections and University Archives Student Assistant, helping with projects related to the Woman Suffrage Collection, digitized Rare Books, and other archival collections projects.
As the pandemic has emphasized the importance of digitally available resources, Gleeson Library has continued working to make more collections available digitally as well as improve the searchability and usefulness of already-digitized collections. One of these partially-digitized resources is Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et métiers, par une sociéte de gens de lettres which includes plates illustrating topics that range from anatomy and military exercises to carpentry and breweries.
So far, the A volume and the B–C volume of plates have been digitized and are available in Gleeson Library’s Digital Collections, but the vast range of topics covered in each volume poses a challenge to researchers; if you are researching ancient alphabets, would it occur to you to search in the B–C volume (not the A volume) of a French encyclopedia from the 1700s?
Given this challenge, Gina Solares, the Digital Collections Librarian, decided that, in order to make the collection most useful to researchers, it would be helpful to include page-level descriptions of each plate within the Digital Collections site. Because each page of the scanned book already has its own page within the digital record, a page-level description of each plate would offer researchers insight into the specific content of the page while also increasing the likelihood that the page would come up in a keyword search. With page-level descriptions, a keyword search for “windmill” would include results of pages in the encyclopedia that contain images of windmills.
To generate these keywords for each plate, I worked through each digitized encyclopedia from cover to cover, noting the captions of the plates as well as any specific items depicted in the images. Although it seems like a relatively straightforward process, things were slightly complicated by the fact that the entire encyclopedia is in French . . . and I do not speak French. To overcome the language barrier, I recruited as many internet translation databases as I could find, and, when those failed, I bothered anyone and everyone I know who actually speaks French, which certainly made for some interesting conversations.
“Hi! How’s your day going? Are you familiar with this obscure French term that I found in a 17th century encyclopedia that has stumped Google Translate?”
It’s a bit of an odd conversation starter.
Despite the challenges of having to type everything into Google Translate (as well as spending some time wondering if I should have taken French instead of Spanish in high school), I worked my way through the French and created lists of captions and keywords of items I identified in the plates. Some pages were easier to determine the scenes being depicted while others took me a bit more sleuthing to decide that I was reasonably confident that the plate in question depicted a parasol-making workshop.
I was interested, as I progressed through the volumes, to see why some things were deemed “important enough” to be included in the encyclopedia while others were not. Many of the entries make sense (human anatomy, architecture, languages, etc.) but some of the entries felt a bit more out of place. For instance, there are about six pages dedicated to the manufacturing of playing cards as well as one page about the manufacturing of corks. Baking only gets one page while button making receives six entire pages. Another unexpected entry was “pyrotechnist,” and the plates on rockets were particularly interesting.
In certain instances, I was stumped about how best to describe a particular plate, which is how a plate like this ended up with the descriptor “contemplative skeleton.” (And honestly, is there a better way to describe a skeleton that looks like it’s having an existential crisis?)
Before starting this project, I would have had no answer if someone asked me what windmills, gardening, anatomy, and pyrotechnics have in common. But after spending more than a dozen hours working with these first two encyclopedia volumes, I can tell you that, although they might not have much in common, you can find each in the “A” volume of Diderot’s Encyclopédie.