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

Periodic Reporting for period 4 - MEDIATE (Middlebrow Enlightenment: Disseminating Ideas, Authors, and Texts in 18th-century Europe)

Reporting period: 2021-03-01 to 2021-08-31

MEDIATE is an ERC-funded digital humanities project, based at Radboud University (The Netherlands), that studies the circulation of books and ideas in eighteenth-century Europe by drawing on a database of several hundred eighteenth-century private library auction catalogues.

Developing an interoperative, Open Access database, the MEDIATE project has harvested and substantially enriched data from a corpus of 600 printed catalogues of smaller private libraries sold - most often, at auction - in the Dutch Republic, France, Italy, and the British Isles between 1665 and 1830. This database holds data on over half a million individual books that circulated in eighteenth-century Europe, creating a unique DH resource for intellectual historians seeking to link books to owners and intellectual networks across Europe, in a comparative, transnational perspective. 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 also 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 addresses the Enlightenment from a reception viewpoint, studying not only 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.

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 described by Margaret Cohen - that need to be adequately studied if we are to truly understand how we "became modern" (or not).
MEDIATE’s major achievements include:

- a publicly accessible, Open Access database, MEDIATE (Measuring Enlightenment: Disseminating Ideas, Authors, and Texts in Europe, 1665 - 1830), containing data extracted and enriched from a select corpus of 600 printed private library catalogues from four greographic regions: British Isles, France, Netherlands and Italy. Containing enriched data on over half a million individual books that circulated in Europe during this period, this is a game-changing resource in the fields of Digital Humanities and European intellectual history.
- two major international conferences, both held in Nijmegen (Radboud Univeristy): Digitizing Enlightenment (June 2017) and Private libraries and private library inventories, 1665 – 1830: Locating, studying and understanding sources, in Europe and beyond (January 2019).
- 40+ peer-reviewed project publications in print or accepted for publication. These publications have appeared in the leading international peer-reviewed book-history journals – Book History, Quaerendo, Revue française d’histoire du livre – as well as other major international journals, including Eighteenth-Century Studies.
- a peer-reviewed volume based on the 2019 conference, Private libraries and their inventories, ed. R. Jagersma, H. Blom, E. Chayes, A.M. Hansen (Brill, 2022)
- the first ever comprehensive inventory of all extant early-modern French private library catalogues, by H. Blom, under contract with Brill
- a synthesizing project monograph co-authored by A.C. Montoya, H. Blom, R. Jagersma, and J. Reboul, Libraries in transit: The movement of private books through public sale across Europe before 1830 (working title)
The MEDIATE project uses digital tools to leverage “big data”, or extremely large bibliographic corpora - in fact, data pertaining to over half a million indiviual books that circulated in eighteenth-century Europe - to study the history of the Enlightenment. Ever since intellectual historians started experimenting with digital, quantitative tools, their transformative potential to not only expand, but fundamentally alter the datasets we work with has been evident. This project investigates what happens when the dataset historians work with is no longer hundreds or even thousands of books, but half a million, in a more accurate reflection of the ever-expanding book market in eighteenth-century Europe. It allows historians to explore how readers and interpretive communities situated the handful of titles we recognize today as belonging to the Enlightenment canon within a larger intellectual context. Concretely, the MEDIATE project:

- was the first to systematically identify and locate printed private library sales (auction) catalogues in libraries and repositories across Europe, rendering these searchable and comparable on a large scale. In doing so, it laid the groundwork for the first comprehensive overview of this type of material.
- was the first to produce a large-scale bibliometric database, MEDIATE, allowing historians to compare and quantify the reception of individual books in different geographic regions during the period 1665-1830
- by comprehensively linking books to owners, and to owners' family and professional networks, sheds new light on eighteenth-century 'private' book ownership, and individuals' access and interactions with books
- revealed the overwhelming, enduring importance of the works and authors of classical antiquity even during the decades most marked by the 'modern' Enlightenment movement
- demonstrated the importance of studying the second-hand book trade alongside the production of new books in eighteenth-century Europe, if historians are to accurately understand processes of intellectual change during this period.
- fundamentally complicated understandings of 'books' as bearers of intellectual content by showing how books functioned as one type of object among many others in the global circulation of goods (as reflected in the categories 'material details' and 'non-book items' in the MEDIATE database)
- created a unique bibliometric database, with data dynamically linked to other major data repositories and authorities (VIAF, CERL Thesaurus), hence laying the foundation for a game-changing LOD bibliometric data ecosystem.