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University of Kentucky Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center is home to a remarkable collection that may drive Kentuckians to defend – or decapitate – a king. 

The French Revolution Publications Collection consists of nearly 5000 political bulletins, printed from the beginning of the long and bloody French Revolution through the ascendancy of Napoleon Bonaparte, which have been recently digitized and made accessible to researchers around the world.

An unknown curator who lived during the period collected these bulletins and bound them into 27 volumes, grouping them by title and arranging them chronologically during the years 1790-1802, as reflected in a magnificent handwritten index. The full set contains 28 volumes, though one was missing when UK Libraries purchased the collection in the 1990s.

“Whoever did the initial curating represented all sides of the conflict – which is very unusual,” said Library Imaging Specialist Crystal Heis, who oversaw the digitization of the bulletins and meticulously created metadata for each of them last year. “And as a collection, it is absolutely one-of-a-kind.”

Prior to Heis’s work, the 27 volumes had only been cataloged at the collection level. By creating metadata for each of the individual bulletins within each volume, they are now far more discoverable to researchers.

Before the Revolution, only a handful of official newspapers and journals could circulate in France, but within a year of the explosive events of 1789, with the royal censorship system in disarray, that number had ballooned to 300. Over the next ten years, some 1,600 different newspapers would be established – most of which were operated by single or small groups of individuals and in existence for a very short time.

It is these short-lived, limited-run publications that make UK Libraries’ collection so unique. 

While creating metadata for the individual titles in the collection, Heis looked for guidance to other libraries and archives who might have similar publications. “To my great surprise, I could not find records for many of these bulletins in other institutions, including in the French National Library,” she said. “It’s possible that additional copies of some of these bulletins exist in small private archives, but these are likely the only remaining copies of what would have been small issues of ephemeral papers. The SCRC is certainly the one place in which they are publicly accessible.”

In consultation with Rare Books Librarian Colleen Barrett, Heis labored through the thousands of pages in the collection, creating metadata for each bulletin in all 27 volumes, a process which took nearly a year. 

Produced in a time of remarkable social chaos – passing through multiple insurrections, the abolition of the monarchy and the beheading of King Louis XVI, the bloody Reign of Terror, and finally the military coup led by Napoleon Bonaparte – the bulletins reflect the chaos that they capture in ways that pose a peculiar challenge to orderly cataloging. 

For example, the collection contains two bulletins titled "Le Véridique” (“The Truthful’), printed across overlapping dates, but which are clearly two different publications. 

A group of editors had split from the original “Le Véridique,” explained Heis, and began printing their own paper – while using the same title and sending it to the same subscriber list. An indignant letter from the editor alerts his readers of this chicanery and urges them to remain faithful to the true "Le Véridique"

In other cases, titles of the same bulletin might change from one month to the next, only to change back again. 

“We have to remember that this was a period of time in which harboring and publishing certain opinions could get you beheaded,” said Heis. "It was an extremely risky environment for publishers, and publication runs might end rather abruptly.” In one case an editor explained that he would no longer be publishing because his life had been threatened. “You will not know me,” he wrote, “I am the wind."

Another challenge to the cataloging process is that the French Revolution had its own dating system: the French Republican Calendar, made up of 12 months of 30 days each, with weeks lasting 10 days. The months have highly poetic names like Prairial (the Month of Meadows, May 20 to June 18), Brumiaire (the Month of Fog, Oct. 22 to Nov. 20) and Ventose (the Month of Wind, Feb. 19 to Mar. 20), and the year includes five “complementary days” in late September.

“Some publications listed the dates in both the Gregorian and the French Republican Calendars, and some were only dated in the latter. It poses a serious challenge – how do I best represent ‘22 Prairial Year II’ in our metadata?”

Though by no means a royalist, Heis opted for Gregorian dating – and after the year-long labor of love, translating dates, tracking changing titles, and teasing out complexities, it was an immense relief to see the collection go live. 

“The function of the archives is two-fold: to save materials, and to make them accessible,” said Heis. “This collection can give scholars of the French Revolution access to materials that may have never been studied before. It’s a real joy to know that these are now available to a global audience, who can read opinions and viewpoints from everyday observers that were almost lost forever.”