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Middlebrow Enlightenment: Disseminating Ideas, Authors, and Texts in 18th-century Europe

Periodic Reporting for period 3 - MEDIATE (Middlebrow Enlightenment: Disseminating Ideas, Authors, and Texts in 18th-century Europe)

Reporting period: 2019-09-01 to 2021-02-28

"MEDIATE is a digital humanities project that seeks to study the circulation of books and ideas in eighteenth-century Europe by drawing on a unique database of 2000 eighteenth-century private library auction catalogues.

Scholars of intellectual history have long focused on a small number of canonical authors and conceptual frameworks in studying societal change during the Enlightenment. Historians of the book have, for their part, often privileged radical, subversive or forbidden texts. Yet ever since Daniel Mornet launched the history of the book approach a century ago, historians have recognized that it was authors who were not radical or subversive who produced the best-selling texts of the 18th century. This project aims to move beyond the present corpus of texts and models that dominate the field, and propose a new model of the eighteenth-century literary system in Europe, that engages productively with the heuristic concept of middlebrow culture.

Developing an interoperative, Open Access database, the MEDIATE project is, firstly, and in close collaboration with other existing historical bibliometric databases, harvesting data from a corpus of catalogues of smaller private libraries sold at auction in the Dutch Republic, France, Italy, and the British Isles between 1665 and 1830. MEDIATE's central hypothesis is that, to adequately understand the spread of ideas and books associated with the Enlightenment movement, it is crucial to understand how these books were embedded in the cultural field at large. Writers are significant not only as individuals, but just as importantly, as part of a larger literary system of eighteenth-century authors, most of whom are unknown to us today. To understand the cultural impact of any individual author's texts, we need to view these as part of a complex literary system, or set of relations between higher- and lower-prestige texts, geographic regions and languages, and between authors closer and farther away from centres of cultural authority.

By focusing on private libraries, MEDIATE further aims to address the Enlightenment from a reception viewpoint, studying not only the circulation of books but also potential readers. The project posits that book ownership, regardless of whether books listed in private catalogues were actually read, and even if catalogues fail to reflect the full extent of an individual's book ownership or reading during a lifetime, provides important indications about intellectual aspirations, processes of (posthumous) self-fashioning, relative prestige assigned to specific books as a form of cultural capital, and booksellers' evaluation of books' monetary worth.

Secondly, the MEDIATE project will lay the foundations for a typology of the corpus of best-selling works during this period describing their generic traits, intended readers, relation to major political and religious debates, and how readers in different parts of Europe may have appropriated these texts through translations, reworkings and other uses. Finally, the project examines how historiography came to define the Enlightenment as the work of an intellectual elite, downplaying the impact of middlebrow texts and readers. The MEDIATE project thus brings a bottom-up approach to intellectual history, using book history data and new digital tools to argue that the Enlightenment was fashioned not only by the progressive intellectuals we know today, but just as importantly, also by a large mass of forgotten books - ""the great unread"", as provocatively described by Margaret Cohen - that need to be adequately studied if we are to truly understand how we ""became modern"" (or not)."
First reporting period:

During the first half of the MEDIATE project, team members worked primarily on harvesting private library auction catalogues for the database, and building the first Sandbox version of the MEDIATE database. Since it turned out that good inventories or overviews of the material were lacking for all regions except the Netherlands, the harvesting work required more time than initially expected, and the project focus moved toward a better understanding of the source material itself (that turned out to be seriously understudied), rather than drawing conclusions from the extracted data. The harvesting work is scheduled to be completed by December 2019.

MEDIATE’s major achievements as of February 2019 include:

- a first, Sandbox version of the MEDIATE database, containing data extracted and enriched from 200 catalogues (10% of the total). This will be made publicly available in late 2019 or early 2020.
- the first peer-reviewed project publications (in French History and Civilization 2017, and Book History, 2018), as well as a number of other peer-reviewed articles accepted for publication
- the organization of two conferences, Digitizing Enlightenment (2017) and Private libraries and their catalogues (2019), each of which attracted 30 - 50 delegates
- two book publications under contract, one with Brill (edited volume based on 2019 conference) and one with Boydell & Brewer (multi-author volume on private library catalogues)
- the award to the PI of the prestigious Ammodo-KNAW Prize for the Humanities 2017, in recognition of the innovative work being done in the MEDIATE project.

Second reporting period:

The period from March 2018 to September 2019 was the project’s major period of work on designing and developing the MEDIATE database, and harvesting, ingesting and enriching data on the first pilot sample of 250 catalogues, representing 240,000 individual book Items. The technical development work on the database started in January 2018, with developer Micha Hulsbosch working 0,3 fte on the project.

MEDIATE’s major achievements during this period include:

- in January 2019, the second major MEDIATE conference, titled Private Library Inventories, 1665 – 1830: Locating, Studying and Understanding Sources, with over thirty speakers from a dozen countries. Selected papers will be published as a peer-reviewed, Open Access volume with Brill.
- the first working version of the Sandbox version of the MEDIATE database (not yet publicly available, but fellow researchers can ask for guest login codes to consult the data)
- a dozen peer-reviewed articles accepted for publication.
- in July 2018 the PI was invited to join the editorial board of Book History, which is the leading journal in this field, as well as the editorial board of the Journal of Data Mining and Digital Humanities.
The project is currently identifying and locating private library auction catalogues in libraries and repositories across Europe. To date, there exists no comprehensive overview of this type of material, so our project will provide the first inventory of it. To do so, we will build a new database, BIBLIO (Bibliography of Individually-owned Book and Library Inventories Online), that will be accompanied by a book publication-inventory. The editor of the Library of the Written Word book series at Brill has already expressed strong interest in publishing this inventory, that is likely to become an indispensable tool for future researchers in this field.