Judging books of the Liberation of France by their cover: a new feature of Cambridge University Library catalogue

Book covers, originally designed to protect the pages of a book, now serve a commercial purpose: they attract the gaze, aiming at inducing the purchase and reading of a book. Their design and appearance are determined by national or sectorial rules and traditions: academic versus popular publishing, paperbacks versus hardbacks. In this blog, I will explore some of the characteristics of current French book covers’ design, the growing importance of book covers images in social media and digital collections, and a specific project designed at Cambridge University Library: adding pictures of book covers to catalogue records of the Liberation collection, 1944-46.

French book covers design and book covers in libraries

In France, pocket editions are typically much more colourful than original ones. Prestigious publishers such as Gallimard, Grasset, Editions de Minuit, Seuil, etc., traditionally have very plain or sleek covers in white or beige tones; by contrast, translated French books tend to have illustrated covers.

As an example, the memoirs Les années published by Annie Ernaux with Gallimard in 2008 (C201.d.4733) only had an illustration in the French Folio pocket edition (part of the body of a woman in a summer dress, lying down under a tree in front an emblematic “deux chevaux” Citroën car). Interestingly, the first publication of The Years, its 2017 translation, by Alison L. Strayer for the independent American publisher Seven Stories Press (winner of the 2018 French-American Foundation Translation Prize) featured a striking composition in black and white tones, divided between on one side the portrait of a pensive woman, and on the other side a crumpled shirt lying on a wooden floor. In the background, the silhouette of a woman (her head invisible) appears in the opening of a door. However, the 2018 edition by the independent UK publisher Fitzcarraldo Editions, who only publishes sleek covers in blue or white, seems closer to the aesthetics of the original French publication.

Up to 2015, Cambridge University Library had a bindery which used to bind or laminate paperbacks destined for the open shelves, securing their preservation, but hiding from the reader or transforming the original external appearance of a book. Nowadays, paperbacks are not bound or laminated anymore, but we still have instructions to remove their boxes and dust-covers, in order to facilitate handling and the positioning of labels and barcodes. Of course, this is not the case for special collections and many Liberation books still have a protective semi-transparent glassine cover.

Book covers talk to reading habits (some publishers use a distinctive, uniform cover, as a strong branding statement -see French academic publisher: while Honoré Champion uses beige covers, Classiques Garnier adopts bright yellow ones for its paperbacks and red ones for its hardbacks) and genre expectations (one can recognise chick lit or detective stories by their cover), playing with effects of familiarity and surprise. The cover picture, chosen by the author and/or the publisher (with recorded cases of disagreements!), can be studied in the perspective of commercial strategies and intended audience, graphic design, generic identification, regional tastes and habits, historical trends and variations.

Examples of thumbnails currently appearing in iDiscover

Book covers images, social media and digital research

In the digital world, social media like Facebook, Flickr, Pinterest, Instagram or Twitter (see #BookCoverChallenge: “post a cover of a book, no explanation”) encourage the consumption and sharing of appealing images, and the creation of thematic book covers picture collections. There is also a wealth of competitions and awards, such as the Bridgeman Best Book Covers competition, with a wide range of potential sub-categories, such as The Book Designer e-Book Cover Design Awards, the Academy of Book Cover Design awards for Children 0-5 or Young Adult and those of PubWest Book Design Award Winners, which include a variety of categories such as travel books, reference books, graphic albums, large formats…

Nowadays, research on book covers and (coloured) cover illustrations is part of studies in arts, design and aesthetics, the history of the book and the publishing industry and digital humanities. Taking advantage of the expansion of digital images collections, ImagePlot is a visualisation tool which can analyse the values of brightness, hue and saturation of each image of a data set and use it as a basis for the visualisation of the whole collection as an organised display. In a 2017 article, Wooseob Jeong from Emporia State University studied the “Media Visualization of Book Cover Images”, exploring differences among a sample of 100 bestseller book covers in different countries. He used media visualisation methods to explore the properties of images in a collection and to compare collections. His conclusions highlighted cultural differences in book cover images in terms of brightness, hue and saturation. “East Asian book covers tend to have brighter colors, fewer red/purple colors, and fewer saturated colors than Anglo-American books covers. These differences may reflect different consumer preferences in book cover images, which gives a good insight for global book translation business” (Jeong, 2017, §33). At least for (paperback) bestsellers, he found that French and Indian books have more dark colours and more saturated colours on their covers than Chinese and Japanese book, whose cover images have more white, black or grey elements… The Liberation book covers picture collection, with its striking illustrations and focus (France, 1944-1946) would be a great source for digital research –let us know if you would like to explore that! Unfortunately, at the moment, there is no online platform displaying the book covers digital collection.

Book covers on library catalogues: the Liberation collection thumbnails project

Cambridge University Library recently developed a project to enable the tailored insertion of cover images for one of our French special collections: books from the Liberation of France, 1944-1946. Some images of book covers appear in library catalogues, such as iDiscover, used at Cambridge University Library, in which the records of most recent books include a thumbnail of their cover image, though this is much less systematic for non-English language books. This is an automatic feature of the Primo library software, a product of the Ex Libris cloud system.

In the case of the historical French Liberation collection, this required a lot of additional work, because we are dealing with older and rare books whose covers have never been systematically digitised. The thumbnails project was all the more interesting because so many books of the Liberation collection are illustrated and present a unique cover design.

Providing thumbnails in a library catalogue appeals visually to the reader and is useful to the researcher. It is also a great mnemonic tool: it can help us identify a book we have previously handled and trace its bibliographic references… It is part of a global trend which started with online retail: on the Amazon website, books on sale feature with their price, summary, bibliographic details and distinct picture of the book cover. Providing a picture of the book cover is now part of the expectations of the online user and customer. The cover image also appears on Google Books, though typically, only the most recent books feature a colour picture of an illustrated cover. Older google Books covers have often been digitised in black and white only.

Also available at the UL: Atlas.6.200.509

The Liberation collection was donated to Cambridge University Library by Charles Chadwyck-Healey who started collecting books on the Liberation of France in 2001 and was instrumental in the organisation of the 2014 exhibition, Literature of the Liberation: The French experience in print, 1944-1946. The thumbnails project is an unforeseen development of an idea which started with the scanning of book covers on arrival of the books purchased by Sir Charles. The integration of Liberation collection book covers into the Cambridge University Library iDiscover catalogue has necessitated the collaboration of several people in different library teams. While the cover images had been progressively scanned, along with the purchase and arrival of books, they needed to be renamed, edited (cropped, rotated) and standardised (to a length of 2000 pixels and a resolution of 600 pixels per inch). We also had to find two spaces for their storage, a closed one for preservation and an open one for public retrieval through the library catalogue interface, and to create links from the catalogue records to the full size book covers images (a link is available in the record) and their thumbnails. There is a daily synchronisation between the two storage spaces, so that images versed into the first one are mirrored into the second one and become available for retrieval through the catalogue the day after.

Screen capture of images edited renamed with unique ID

In order to associate cover images to each Liberation record on the library catalogue, we needed to rename the images according to the book’s shelfmark. There is only one bibliographical record but several holdings attached, in the case of duplicates (for example Péguy, Péri: deux voix françaises, avec une préface de Vercors, et une introduction par le Témoin des martyrs [Aragon], 1944, both at Liberation.c.845 and Liberation.c.1402 but printed on different types of paper: the first one is no 31 sur Madagascar, the second one sur vélin) or multi-part books (such as La Résistance -coloriages humoristiques-, 1946, in 3 volumes at Liberation.c.1431-1433).

Some Liberation books awaiting cataloguing

In those cases, only one image had to be selected and retained (the best of the two if the cover was similar, that of volume 1 in the case of multi-part sets). In some instances the original cover pictures scans were missing and/or their quality was not satisfactory. This explains the absence of cover picture in some of the catalogued records. In addition, only a first batch of images (c. 1700) has been edited and processed in this first phase of the thumbnails project. We hope that next autumn, when the cataloguing of the remainder of the Liberation collection is completed, the rest of the images will also be processed and included in a second phase of the thumbnails project.

One of our challenges has been indeed that the cataloguing of the Liberation collection is still in process: while about 2000 books have already been catalogued, two cataloguers have recently been recruited to finish the cataloguing of about 1000 books between now and November. In addition, the collecting for the Liberation collection is still ongoing, with new acquisitions in progress, though at a much smaller pace.

Screenshot of folder with liberation covers with shelfmarks

Now to the nitty gritty: we needed to develop the thumbnail project in several stages, first for the books which had already been catalogued, and second, for those which were going to be catalogued, and did not have a shelfmark yet.  All the Liberation collection books are recorded in an Acquisitions database where they have been attributed a unique ID number. Each image cover needed to be matched to this unique number. Eventually, all unique ID numbers would be matched to a shelfmark (once the book had been catalogued), and each image renamed accordingly. Then we needed to make the image renamed by its shelfmark retrievable through the creation of a link in the library catalogue record (856 42 |u https://wwwe.lib.cam.ac.uk/pr-liberation/covers/PR-LIBERATION-A-00005.jpg |3 Cover image) for the image corresponding to Liberation.a.5, L’héroïque sabordage de la flotte française: Toulon, 27 novembre 1942, photographies prises par André Piernic pendant le sabordage. Paris: Les Éditions de l’Ile de France, 1945). This could be done semi-automatically but would not cover the books which were in the process of being catalogued and did not have a shelfmark yet. For those, providing an edited and renamed image was available, the cataloguers needed to find, copy and rename the image according to the database, and create the appropriate link in the catalogue record. Nb: to access the full size cover image, you need to go to the bottom of the catalogue record, in the “Links” section, and to click on “Cover image”.

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To conclude, I would like to emphasise how this thumbnails project, tailored to enrich Cambridge University Library Liberation collection catalogue records, which is about to become a bibliographic database of international importance for French publications of the end of the Second World War, has been and still is the object of team efforts. It was enabled thanks to contributions by Charles Chadwyck-Healey, his bibliographical researcher Sophie Dubillot, the photographer Fanny Bara, the Collections and Academic Liaison team (Liberation cataloguers Anne-Laure Lacour and Clara Panozzo, and myself as the French Specialist), Digital Services (Oladeji Famakinwa, Tristram Scott, Paul Taylor-Crush and John Norcott) and the Digital Content Unit (Huw Jones and Maciej Pawlikowski).

PS : Searching tips. If you want to browse the Liberation collection records in iDiscover –with or without thumbnails–, just type “Chadwyck-Healey Liberation Collection” in the iDiscover search box! You can also use the “Advanced Search”: choose “Classsmark” and type “Liberation.*” (there are 3 formats of Liberation books, from the tallest ‘a’ size to the smallest ‘c’ size, such as Liberation.a.20, Oradour-s-Glane : souviens-toi = remember, photos, André Gamet (Lyon), A. Naulleau (Limoges) et équipes d’urgence F.T.P.F., Lyon : Hélio-Bellecour, 1945 ; Liberation.b.5 Antoine de Roux, Journal dessiné d’un prisonnier de guerre. Paris : Robert Laffont, 1945 ; or Liberation.c.932, G. Dassonville, L’épreuve inhumaine. Lille : Éditions Janicot, 1945).

Irène Fabry-Tehranchi

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