Some of you might remember that in like… 2006 and 2007, I discovered a collection of primary sources on 19th century French republicanism entitled “Les Révolutions du XIXe siècle” and embarked on a mad quest to hunt it down. It ended in me schlepping out an hour’s drive to the University of Maryland, plonking my nervous teenage self down in their library with the sense that I was trespassing, and proceeding to type up absolutely insane amounts of it by hand. This still makes up about 3/4 of what’s on the History page of my website, even if it barely scratched the surface of what was in the collection.
Gallica has PDFs of the whole series up for free.
I repeat, THIS IS NOT A DRILL, Gallica has the entirety of Les Révolutions du XIXe siècle available for free.
I still sometimes get the urge to cry with joy over how much the digitization and online availability of public-domain documents has revolutionized the amateur study of history. I want to go back and give my 18-year-old self a hug and whisper beautiful things about the future in her ear, because the fact is that in summer 2006, I didn’t even give a second thought to sitting there in the UMD library with a pair of reading glasses I never should have needed, hunched over a copy of “La presse républicaine devant les tribunaux 1831-1834” and touch-typing as fast as my fingers could manage the French. It didn’t even occur to me to be sad that there was no other way to share these sources with anyone (or even have them myself for later reference, because I’m not a UMD student and can’t check out books there). At that point Google Books was barely a thing and they didn’t even have any partnerships to digitize university libraries yet. Digitization? Of obscure stuff like this, rather than the classic literature up on Project Gutenberg? What did I want, the world handed to me on a silver platter?
Well, whether I thought to want it or not, that’s what I got. And a pony. All wrapped up in a bright red bow.
Gallica’s records indicate that “Les Révolutions du XIXe siècle” was digitized in October 2007. That’s the same month I discovered Google Books. And I don’t think that’s a coincidence—it’s a sign of HOW FAST this all happened. Open-access public-domain history went from a pipe dream to a reality in the space of a year. The sources we take for granted now, the sources that have actually started showing up in Amazon results because there are companies that will take the free digitized copy and print it for you on demand, were things that were just not available when I got into Les Mis fandom unless you had either inter-library loan access or the time, gas money, geographic luck, and brazen gall to march into random institutional libraries and call yourself a historian. I hit the jackpot on geographic luck, but in 2006 I never did work up the time and courage to jump through all the security and registration hoops to request things from the closed stacks at NIH or the Library of Congress. And the Library of Congress? Is really goddamn friendly and open-access compared to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, which makes you justify yourself with institutional backing and proof that you can’t obtain your sources anywhere else just to get into the building. Which is one more reason why Gallica is a beautiful, amazing thing.
The Page Turner
When I read a book on Google
Scanned from paper onto screen,
I forget the steady labor
Of the scanner, sight unseen.
Then I see your lovely fingers
You’re the one who took the care,
You’re the one who turned the pages.
Now I know you’re hiding there.
by James Gurney