Approaching digitized pamphlets, broadsides and chapbooks

Cover of a sixteenth century pamphlet - image: The Newberry, ChicagoAmong digital collections with old printed works pamphlets, broadsides, broadside ballads and chapbooks have theit own place. You can find a fair number of them in the largest digital libraries. Commercial firms, too, have created some vast pamphlet collections. However, the number of digital collections in open access for this genre is surprisingly large, and not resticted to the Anglophone world. In some ways these cheap printed works have become priceless, because they record ephemeral and fleating information with a resemblance to social media in our own time. Finding such digital collections is one things, making them accessible proved to be another challenge. Recently I completed at Zotero a new searchable form of my list of digital collections devoted to these genres which in my view makes them much more accessible.

Adding value to a list

Logo Zotero

When I started to create a list o digital pamphlet collections my purpose was already not to list them only in whatever sensible order, but to present them with comments on their contents and scope. For years division in a section with some general themes and periods and a section in alphabetical order by country seemed sufficient. Occasionally people thanked me for my efforts in compiling this information, no complaints about shortcomings have ever been filed. Of course I could benefit from remarks about lacunae and oversights.

However, a tiny third section with “Other themes” certainly was visible and stood as a kind of question mark about this order of things. Some themes touched only a few countries, others illustrated the growing impact of Europe in other parts of the world, some of them would merit inclusion under another heading, too. At some point I started a section on chapbooks, and later on also for broadside ballads. A post here about complaintes criminelles, French broadside ballads about crimes and trials, prompted me into making space for this genre as well. Politics, government, law and crimes are among the themes of ephemeral printed works. However cheap the paper or crude the illustrations, they, too, form a source for legal history, in particular for the image of law and justice, and even for legal iconography. Festival books, too, deserved inclusion on my list. In 2018 I discussed here a number of digital collections with festival books.

In order not to make anyone unhappy when seeing an interesting collection only accessible at subscribing institutions and for their cardholders, I focused almost exclusively on collections in open access. I listed only those licensed collections when you can at least browse and search them, leaving you with at least some substantial information, even without final complete access. Some licensed collections contain many thousand items, but some digital collections in open access are equally rich in numbers. The first image in this post shows a pamphlet printed in Lyon in 1561 from the holdings of The Newberry Library in Chicago, a collection with 38,000 items in the Internet Archive, also searchable with Philologic4 (ARTFL, University of Chicago). On a separate section of its website The Newberry informs you about many aspects of this project, including data versions of the entire set.

Some projects give you not only digitized items, but also access to an online catalogue or a virtual exhibit. For some subjects bibliographies exist. Sometimes even more can be found: The catalogue of the priceless collection of early editions of works by Martin Luther at the Herzog-August-Bibliothek, Wolfenbüttel, many of them pamphlets, amounts to a bibliography worth mentioning. When you start counting the number of similar cases it becomes clear that even a commented list can offer you only a restricted number of services, let alone a bare list.

Qualities and quantity

How can you make the various kinds of information in a list better accessible? Having information at your hand is one thing, using it to gain knowledge leading eventually  to insight is another thing. When you reach a certain number of items in a list, catalogue or bibliography it may become advisable to store them electronically, not only in a text program, but in some kind of information storage and retrieval system. I contemplated creating an online database, either in a specially created format or at an existing platform. A few months ago I looked rather closely at an online database for the humanities in order to deal with a much longer list. The benefit of accompanying visualization seemed most interesting. For this shorter list a chance encounter with a sophisticated bibliography at Zotero quickly led me to this platform.

At Zotero you can create online bibliographies with facilities for rapid reshuffling and exporting in any layout according to the styles preferred by research institutions and journals. You can restrict access to yourself or a group, or invite people to work together on a project. It is possible to create sections in a bibliography, and, for me very interesting, you can create and use tags, labels and classifications at will. Combining tags is very easy and effective for finding information and relating it to a wider context. Thus Zotero can function to a certain extent as a relational database. Using tags is also most sensible when you deal with collections in a variety of languages. Zotero uses icons for particular kinds of information,, be they books, videos, web pages, statutes or cases. It is also possible to import data using scripts.

In my searchable overview I use icons sparingly. Putting the items into Zotero manually gave me a chance to look again at digital collections. Some of them had grown substantially, some of them are at a slightly or completely different web address, some of them lacked sufficient descriptions. It was pleasant to discover for some collections a web directory, a bibliography or other useful information well worth mentioning. I decided to mark the tags for genres within a collection with colours, and also catalogues and bibliiographies. Thus for example collections with both pamphlets and broadsides stand out, as do those with a catalogue or a bibliography. I was able to add also the major separate collections with pamphlets from the First World War which you can find at my blog Digital 1418.

Looking at the new overview I am surprised by the ways you can now relate collections to each other in new ways. In fact these combinations sometimes helped me to add or refine tagging, or I could quickly add a collection that should figure here, too. Some gaps have become more visible, too. To mention just a few examples, until now I have included only few collections with pamphlets concerning the Second World War, and the number of collections concerning women is low, too. There is a substantial number of collections from Spain, but Portugal is currently absent. How about links to digitized catalogues for famous pamphlet collections?! Such examples stress the fact overviews will always remain work in progress.

Digital durabiblity and visibility

Logo the Mmeory of the Netherlands 2020

There is always some reason to adduce here my Dutch view, but this time I am not happy with a change in the digital presence of some Dutch pamphlet collections. The relevant collections that could conveniently be found under the aegis of The Memory of the Netherlands portal have been moved to a new subdomain of the Delpher portal for digitized Dutch books, journals and newspapers. At the old web address a project using the same name, Geheugen van Nederland [The Memory of the Netherlands] announces for a general public new efforts for enhanced visibility of digitized cultural heritage collections. You would have expected the creation of redirects for the old links to the relevant collections, both in Dutch and English, but this has not or not yet happened. The old links were definitely not permalinks, and it seems not all old links have already been turned into permanent links.

In view of the ongoing campaign for digital visibility, sustainability and usability led by the Dutch Digital Heritage Network this is simply inexplicable. Creating a new platform  with currently just three themes and giving the old portal a new logo seems to have been more important than realizing the impact of the change of addresses. The absence of effective and wide communication this summer about this change adds to the paradox of removing a working portal with substantial contents for an almost empty shop window. Just one example of the impact: The Dutch Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam, an important contributing institution, still gives links for its web projects at The Memory at the old Dutch version. In the English version of these links for only one collection the link to the new platform has been set, for other collections the old links lead to error messages. The Memory of the Netherlands is a cultural heritage portal with rich collections in open access in need of good maintenance and a new lifespan. In fact, this portal, too, helped me to think about adding yet another genre of popular prints to my overview. Hopefully the current awkward situation can soon end by putting things into order.

Whatever you may think of this unlucky affair, it underlines the fact some efforts are needed for creating and maintaining a digital portal. In my case I commit myself to continuity and renewal for my list and the searchable overview with working URL’s for more than two hundred digitized collections for pamphlets and related genres, and a score of supporting websites. If you spot any broken link in the list or the new overview, please do not hesitate to contact me by mail. Hopefully this service for scholars and anyone interested can achieve its aim of assisting to find your way to these sources in the virtual world.

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