Since we spend so much of our time working behind the scenes on projects benefiting researchers and academics whom we rarely get to meet, it is always a pleasure to discuss the collections and our cataloging work at the Newberry Library with the people who are going to use them. For one thing, it’s helpful to hear from researchers about what they are interested in finding within our collections and how they intend to find it—keeping their perspective in mind makes it easier for us to provide user-friendly records with logical access points. For another, although we have all learned a lot about the French Revolution through the sheer number of pamphlets we have read and background research we have done, most of us didn’t come to this project with advanced degrees in French History. Because of this, we I frequently wish we had unlimited access to experts in the field who could take one look at a pamphlet and tell us exactly what it’s about and in what context it was written.
One recent visit provided us with just such an opportunity. Last month, part of our team was fortunate enough to meet two visiting scholars of the French Revolution who came to take a look at our collection. Although most of the visitors to whom we show our French Revolutionary pamphlets are genuinely interested in them, it was especially rewarding to witness the enthusiastic reactions of researchers who were excited about being able to use our newly cataloged collection.
One of the scholars in particular was able to provide an astonishing amount of information about the pamphlets we showed him from just a cursory look. In fact, after I showed him a recently cataloged satirical dialogue between Louis XVI and the ghostly spirit of Louis XIV, he skimmed a few lines from the beginning, flipped to the final page, and promptly listed several ways he could tell that the pamphlet was an anti-monarchist piece. The intricacies of revolutionary politics and satire, were instantly recognizable to him because of his experience and expertise.
Opportunities to discuss our collection with experts are valuable because they show us that, although it is obvious even to the layperson that this collection is a treasure trove of information about the French Revolution, to the trained eye it contains even more depth and nuance than we could imagine.