Since archives are one of next week’s topics, here are two of interest:

The ARTFL project

This online archive has digitized many pieces of French literature and other important documents in French.

I was involved with ARTFL very briefly back in the 90’s, when I was a grad student at the University of Illinois. The U of I has the largest collection of French-language works outside the French speaking world, so the folks running the ARTFL project asked us if they could borrow some for digitization.

The university would not loan out a few items, such as the Dictionary of the French Academy 1740, 1762, and 1798 editions, so I had to photocopy them and then make sure the photocopies were legible.

The Kolb Proust Archive for Research

I was more closely involved with this one. Marcel Proust, one of the 20th century’s great writers, wrote as many as twelve of thirteen letters per day, but he never dated them.

Enter Prof. Philip Kolb. Kolb collected as many of Proust’s letters as he could AND tried to date them. He did this by reading the letters, and then going through the newspapers and magazines of the time, trying to match up things Proust mentioned in his letters with reports in the print media.

Kolb would then take notes on notecards, carefully labeling the date of the event, the source, and a brief description of the event. These were the chronology files. These weren’t the only files: biography files, of the people and families important in Proust’s life, were also there. These were all housed in card catalogs.

Kolb was very successful, publishing over fifteen editions of Proust’s annotated letters, and in the process, created this archive.

The university had just secured a grant to digitize the archive when I arrived, so I got to work there for two years. Most of the time, I worked with the chronology files. It was fascinating. Proust came from a very wealthy family, so he moved in the elite circles in Paris at the time (1870-1921).

As a result, by digitizing the chronology files, I got an intimate glimpse into the lives of those people. Also included in the chronology files were excerpts of letters from other people, so I didn’t just deal with news, I also read an awful lot of gossip. It was educational and fun.

It was also shocking at times. I felt like I got to know these people, and when bad things happened (like, say, suicide), I was taken aback. a few times felt like I was losing a friend. Further, I got a close up look at the horrors of World War I.

Also, I learned HTML in the process — we had to set up templates, so I learned the basic commands , some of which I still use frequently, and some I need to sit down and learn again.