French historical and literary sources in large online databases

Cambridge University Library subscribes to many large literary and historical databases: their sources are mainly in English, but they also contain foreign language material. Gale Primary Sources, which encompasses 26 thematic databases, contains lots of resources in French, as well as other languages. They can be accessed on your device anywhere within the University, and from home with the University of Cambridge VPN.

The database Archives unbound is particularly interesting for its primary historical material. It covers “topics” such as African Studies; British and European History; Business and Economic History; Cultural Studies; Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies; Latin American and Caribbean Studies; Law, Politics, and Radical Studies; Middle Eastern Studies; Religious Studies, as well as many others.

The “British and European History” topic alone encompasses 78 collections (out of 403 in total), which feature both material about French history and primary sources in French:

  • Actes royaux français, 1256-1794 (French Royal Acts)
  • Allied Propaganda in World War II and the British Political Warfare Executive
  • Conditions & Politics in Occupied Western Europe, 1940-1945
  • European Colonialism in the Early 20th Century: French Colonialism in Africa: From Algeria to Madagascar, 1910-1930 (based on U.S. consular activities)
  • Indochina, France, and the Viet Minh War, 1945-1954: Records of the U.S. State Department, Part 1: 1945-1949
  • Journaux de la Révolution de 1848 (Newspapers of the French Revolution 1848)
  • La France pendant la guerre 1939-1945: Résistance et journaux de Vichy (Voices from Wartime France)
  • L’Affaire Dreyfus: son influence dans la création de la France moderne (The Dreyfus Affair in the Making of Modern France)
  • Mercure de France, 1672-1810
  • Patriotes aux Armes! The Underground Resistance in France, Belgium, Holland, and Italy, 1939-1945 (documents produced by or relating to the underground resistance in France, Belgium, Holland, and Italy.)
  • Psychological Warfare and Propaganda in World War II: Air Dropped and Shelled Leaflets and Periodicals (printed in over 10 languages)

An advanced search for French language material in the “Archives Unbound” results in

  • 17,475 Monographs
  • 7,277 Manuscripts
  • 1,595 Newspapers issues

The “Topic finder” feature allows users to look at words and subjects most often found in a specific corpus. Within the French language Archives Unbound Newspapers, this visualisation tool shows that Second World War (resistant) newspapers published between 1941 and 1945 are particularly well represented, as well as keywords such as, “résistance”, “libre” and “libération” (as well as “franc-tireur” and “patriote”).

A second example is a different Gale database, The Making of the Modern World”: it “covers the history of Western trade, encompassing the coal, iron, and steel industries, the railway industry, the cotton industry, banking and finance, and the emergence of the modern corporation. It is also strong in the rise of the modern labor movement, the evolving status of slavery, the condition and making of the working class, colonization, the Atlantic world, Latin American/Caribbean studies, social history, gender, and the economic theories that championed and challenged capitalism in the nineteenth century. In addition, the archive offers resources on the role of finance and taxation and the growth of the early modern monarchy. It features essential texts covering the function of financial institutions, the crisis of the French monarchy and the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century, and the connection between the democratic goals of revolutionaries and their legal aspirations”. This material is freely available due to the digitization of the collection of Herbert Foxwell (1849-1936), “a preeminent British economist and one of the most important collectors of economics literature”, now mainly held in Goldsmiths’ Library of Economic Literature (Senate House, University of London) and Kress Library of Business and Economics (Harvard University).

Filtering French language material in “The Making of the Modern World” gives 13,000 results, starting with monographs on topics ranging from politics and law to social Catholicism, arithmetic, agriculture, accounting, and trade catalogues, from the 16th to the 19th century.Another example of the wealth of material found in Gale Primary Sources are the Archives of Sexuality and Gender, which according to the publisher provide “a robust and significant collection of primary sources for the historical study of sex, sexuality, and gender. With material dating back to the sixteenth century, researchers and scholars can examine how sexual norms have changed over time, health and hygiene, the development of sex education, the rise of sexology, changing gender roles, social movements and activism, erotica, and many other interesting topical areas”. A search for “French” or “French-based creoles and pidgins” languages returns:

  •  2,626 Monographs, starting with works on Gender identity and international human rights law (2012); the Civil Marriage act in Canada (2016); and Prostitution and syphilis in large cities -specifically Lyons (1842)
  • 128 Manuscripts (starting with items from the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives)
  • and 133,283 issues of Newspapers & Periodicals (starting with the title RG Rencontres Gaies, published in Montreal)

The Archives of Sexuality and Gender consist of five archives:

  • LGBTQ History and Culture Since 1940, Part I
  • LGBTQ History and Culture Since 1940, Part II
  • Sex and Sexuality, Sixteenth to Twentieth Century
  • International Perspectives on LGBTQ Activism and Culture
  • L’Enfer de la Bibliothèque nationale de France

The last section is particularly interesting for French material as the Enfer (“Hell”) from the Bibliothèque nationale de France is one of the most famous “private case collections of forbidden books” (mainly in French, it includes items in other languages). “The collection was created in the 1830s to protect and isolate works that were considered contrary to the morals of the time. As with later private cases, the entire collection was kept in a locked section of the library […]. Enfer is made up of more than 2,400 literary works, manuscripts, engravings, lithographs, and photographs. Around 950 additional items come from a special appendix to Enfer called Flagellation. […] The books in Enfer span from the 1530s to the 2010s, providing a wide perspective throughout time and in different societies on what was considered to be erotic and/or pornographic works”.

One of the analytic tools offered by the Gale platform is the visualisation of “term frequency” which maps over time the use of a specific term in the works of a corpus. Searches for “sexe” and “gai” show the paucity of resources before the 18th century and suggest a much larger corpus from the 1970s to the 2000s-2010s. The sudden increase may be correlated to contemporary cultural changes in western society -the 1960s-70s liberation movements, including the “sexual revolution”. In this context, it is worth noting that the use of the term “homosexuel” first appears in this corpus in the late 1890s and only seems to increase gradually in the 1970s, with a peak in 1983, when it is used in 853 documents.

The Gale databases have a rich pool of (British) newspapers (including British Library Newspapers, The Independent Historical Archive, Nineteenth Century U.S. Newspapers, Nineteenth Century UK Periodicals, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Burney Newspapers Collection -with 239 newspaper issues in French, Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century Nichols Newspapers Collection etc). They contain not only historical material but also literary resources, including Gale Literary Index, Gale Literature Criticism, Gale Literature Resource Center, Gale Literature: Contemporary Authors, Gale Literature: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Gale Literature: LitFinder, Gale Literature: Scribner Writer Series, Gale Literature: Something About the Author, etc.

Last but not least is the Gale archive “Nineteenth century collections online”, which includes French language collections such as

  • European Literature, the Corvey Collection, 1790–1840 (it contains 3,658 works in French -and more than 500 by women) and
  • Europe and Africa, Colonialism and Culture (it includes the Annales de l’Extrême Orient et de l’Afrique and the Bulletins du Comité de l’Afrique française).

The UL does not currently subscribe to “Nineteenth century collections online” but just started a trial of this database (until 1 December 2022).

Another trial of the French newspapers archive Retronews (including more than 2000 French periodicals published between 1631 and 1951, which are not freely available on the Bibliothèque Nationale de France digital library, Gallica) will start on 26 October. An online live demo of Retronews is going to take place on 25 October at 10 am. Please get in touch if you would like to register for the Retronews training. Do make the most of the trials and give us feedback if you support the acquisition of these resources.

Irene Fabry-Tehranchi

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