At the end of a festive session yesterday in Leiden a new Dutch digital library has been launched. Early Dutch Books Online (EDBO) is the fruit of cooperation between the Royal Library in The Hague and the university libraries of Leiden and Amsterdam. Contrary to the project Early English Books Online its Dutch counterpart is free accessible. A second difference is the much smaller time span covered by EDBO, only the period 1780-1800. You can connect directly from EDBO to the Short Title Catalogue Netherlands (STCN), the retrospective bibliography of Dutch books published between 1540 and 1800. The STCN now points you also to EDBO. My interest in digital libraries and their contents and research chances for legal historians explains my interest in this new project. In fact the Royal Library had invited those interested in EDBO a number of weeks ago to have a look at the beta version. What does EDBO bring for Dutch legal history? Does this project live up to normal expectations about digital libraries?
At first I had a feeling of disappointment about the seemingly low number of digitized books touching upon Dutch legal history. EDBO presents some 10,000 books with a total of over 2 million pages, and only a very restricted number of books have titles suggesting immediately a connection with legal history. If you look for books with privileges (privilegien in the old Dutch spelling), bylaws (keuren), charters (handvesten), customary law (costumen) or simply the Dutch word for law, recht, as title words you will not find much. Of course it is good to have a digitized version of the great edition of sources for the city of Dordrecht, Handvesten, privilegien, vrijheden, voorrechten, octrooijen en costumen…der stad Dordrecht edited by Pieter Hendrik van de Wall (Dordrecht 1790); the first edition appeared in 1783. The volume of handvesten for the Overwaard, the region near Gorinchem on the Waal, edited by Nicolaas van Slype (Gorinchem 1782) is not very well known, but the two volumes with handvesten for Nijmegen (Nijmegen 1785) are more familiar. Among the treatises included are an edition of Simon van Leeuwen‘s Het Roomsch Hollandsch Recht (2 vol., Amsterdam 1780) edited by Cornelis Willem Decker, a translation of Rousseau’s Du contrat social (Dordrecht 1793), and the Schets over de rechten van de mensch (…) [A sketch of the rights of man] by F.A. van der Marck (Groningen 1798). In the field of ecclesiastical law I noted a booksize pamphlet on the ecclesiastical properties held since the sixteenth century by the city of Haarlem, Het eigendoms-recht der stad Haarlem, op de zoogenaamde geestelijke goederen (…) (Haarlem 1800), addressed to the parliament of the Batavian Republic.
Another book called Amsterdams burgerrecht: Dat is Verzameling van privilegien en handvesten [Amsterdam's citizens' law, being a collection of privileges and charters] (Amsterdam 1787) atttacted my attention because of words following the subtitle: “Uit de groote Handvest en andere schriften byeen verzameld, om als een zakboek van ieder gebruikt te kunnen worden”, compiled from the Major Charter and other writings in order to serve as a pocketbook for everyone’s use. Having the law at hand, in your pocket even, is a symbol of the growing emancipation of citizens which longed to have access to politics and the administration of daily life. The period 1780-1800 is part of a longer period in Dutch and European history of intense political debate and revolution. In Dutch history the Patriotic Revolt (1785-1787) was a kind of preparation for the French Revolution and the foundation of the Batavian Republic (1795-1806). In fact I guess one of the major shortcomings of this digital library is its rather arbitrary time limit. Adding the period up to 1815 or 1820 would greatly strengthen this collection. At the same time I admit the very qualities of the present collection awaken the taste for more!
Despite the seemingly restricted number of legal books – some sixty books with recht as a title word – the strength of EDBO is something else, too, the fact that you can also search in the digitized texts. The search function enables you to look really directly into the books produced during two decades, and to search for discussions of political and legal matters. The number of books touching upon law in EBDO becomes larger when you extend your research to ordonnanties, local and regional ordinances on a great variety of topics ranging from economic matters to the military. EDBO contains nearly 200 digitized ordinances.
As for the more common qualities to be expected from a uptodate digital library the search function of EDBO is rather restricted. Even the advanced search offers you only the fields author, title, language and year. However, one is directed to the STCN for more generous search facilities including keywords and subject headings. I accessed the digitized volume on the possessions of the city of Haarlem from 1800 through the STCN, and thus it seems the identifying web address functions correctly, although this permalink is only shown at the STCN, not in EDBO itself. Each page of the books digitized for EDBO has its own particular URL. In January 2011 Klaus Graf expressed his regret about a project for the digitization of economic works for the Marx-Engels Gesamtausgabe by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences which offers no permanent URL’s to the digitized pages. I was about to finish my post when I read Klaus Graf’s first impressions of EBTO: laurels for the quality of the images, grumblings about the hidden corner of the permalinks.
Eager readers of my website and the page of this blog on Dutch legal history might have noted the relatively low number of Dutch digital libraries which pertain to the field of history and law. DEN, the Dutch centre for the digitization of cultural heritage, has created a new version of its list of ongoing Dutch digitization projects. I suppose I will have to look again at it and to check for various promising projects. You can expect new results to appear on my pages within the near future.