The Bibliotheque Bleue Online: CIFNAL's First Collaborative Project

Bibliothèque bleue is the name given to the small chapbooks printed on blue paper and sold by itinerant vendors in France from the 17th until the early 19th centuries. CIFNAL's first project focuses on creating a searchable digital library of these books. It is a collaborative effort, bringing together ARTFL (University of Chicago), the Médiathèque de l'agglomération troyenne (MAT), and CIFNAL. Currently, only ARTFL and CIFNAL are actively participating, but we hope to revive contacts with the MAT in the future.

The activities of the Bibliothèque bleue project are threefold: scanning a selection of the "Bibliothèque bleue" books, processing the texts using double keying and tagging, and incorporating the corpus of materials into ARTFL's searchable database. Aimed at a popular audience, the chapbooks contain simplified versions of histories and tales, songs, works of piety, and advice manuals.

In France, they were the specialty of several provincial towns, the most important being Troyes, where the genre was born in the early 17th century by the printer-bookseller Nicolas Oudot. As the historian Robert Mandrou noted, their interest lies in their ability to "recreate French popular culture during the Ancien Régime." (Mandrou 1964, 17). Because the Bibliothèque bleue is so closely associated with the city of Troyes and its history, it is not surprising that the Médiathèque de l'agglomération troyenne (MAT, Municipal library of Troyes and its region) has one of the most important collections of works of this genre. Its collection contains more than 2,500 works, almost 700 of which were printed in Troyes.

When we started this project, the MAT had already digitized much of this collection in image format. The origins of this project occurred at the 2005 ALA Annual Meeting in Chicago. Since the objectives of CIFNAL include collaboration and resource-sharing, we took this opportunity to meet with the directors of ARTFL, the French digital text library based at the University of Chicago, to discuss possibly collaborative projects.

The identification of the Bibliothèque bleue corpus at the MAT as a possible candidate for a digital project emerged from this meeting, and it was decided to contact the director. The MAT welcomed our proposal, and its then-director, M. Thierry Delcourt, offered ARTFL/CIFNAL the image files of some 300 Bibliothèque bleue texts from their library, which ARTFL then sent to an outside vendor to be double-keyed and tagged using TEI-Lite. Once ARTFL received the text files back from the vendor, it constructed a public Web site for researchers to search the texts of the Bibliothèque bleue using PhiloLogic. The ARTFL Web site also contains links to the original MAT images, so that researchers can see the physical format of the chapbooks whose texts they are examining.

The original funding for this project was generously offered by ARTFL itself. Their $10,000 gift made possible the processing and inclusion of 116 texts to form a searchable Web site using ARTFL's PhiloLogic software. Moreover, ARTFL engaged graduate students to correct the texts by hand, since even careful keying resulted in some errors due to the poor quality of their original printing or the scanned image. To raise additional funding for this and other ARTFL projects, a group of self-selected sustaining members of ARTFL (SMARTFL) was formed. This membership class, which pays a higher level of annual membership dues, has the opportunity to decide how ARTFL should spend the additional monies that they provide.

In 2008, SMARTFL members proposed adding the additional Bibliothèque bleue texts to the digital corpus. As a result, an additional 136 new texts will be added soon to the collection, and the expanded Bibliothèque bleue database will be released on ARTFL's new server. Additionally, the University of California, Berkeley, a CIFNAL member, has offered to have some of the Bibliothèque bleue works in the Bancroft Library digitized and added to the project. This is still in a planning phase, but it illustrates the ongoing nature of digital projects and of CIFNAL's partnership with ARTFL. We welcome you to try out the Bibliothèque bleue online project.