The Société bibliographique de France: A new organisation for promoting the history of the book in the French world
Over the past few decades book history has been something of an outsider in the French intellectual world. Whilst in Anglophone countries the discipline thrived, in France the subject was increasingly marginalised. Elsewhere in academia, numerous student programs, research centres and well-funded projects have been founded and developed into being a well-respected part of the university landscape. Well-established groups such as the Bibliographical Society in London, or IFLA itself, along with large international organisations like SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing) have steadily grown in stature. Libraries have also recognised the interest in their rare books collections devising collaborative structures such as CERL (Consortium of European Research Libraries) through which to improve access to and knowledge of their collections.
The exponential development in book studies by and large passed France by. This may seem paradoxical. After all, it was in France that perhaps the most important monograph on book history in the twentieth century was published. Febvre and Martin’s ground-breaking study of the early printed book – L’apparition du livre (translated in English under the title The Coming of the Book) – was published in 1958 to great acclaim and can be seen as laying the foundations for the rise of book history as an academic subject in its own right. But this did not happen in France. No chairs, centres, or institutions were created to further the study of the book. Lucien Febvre died before the book was completed and Henri-Jean Martin (and his erstwhile students) stayed mainly with the library world, working in institutions that specialised in the training of future librarians such as the École nationale des Chartes and the ENSSIB (École Nationale Supérieure des Sciences de l’Information et des Bibliothèques).
This does not mean to say that there was no interest in the subject. Academics worked and published on book history related themes – but without much institutional recognition. Today, book historians are divided between disciplines, mainly in art history, literary studies, and history. Much of what is being done in the domain is actually being done in the library world. The main players are not university libraries (which on the whole have a limited number of rare books), but the hundreds of heritage collections strewn across France, libraries that were created by the confiscation of religious collections in the aftermath of the French revolution. In short, book history was a poor and isolated relative.
In recent times, some effort on the behalf of the libraries sought to correct this situation. The creation of the electronic mailing list, Bibliopat and its accompanying website for professional librarians, was a first step in the right direction. But there was no overarching structure to link the library world with academia and, indeed, with all those interested in book history elsewhere in society (bibliophiles, booksellers, etc). This, along with the desire to promote the study of books, was the primary reason behind the creation two years ago of the Société bibliographique de France.
The society’s aim to develop the study of book history and bibliography in France is first of all based around the creation of a dedicated website: societebibliographique.fr. The society’s blog is a medium through which reviews of exhibitions, recent discoveries, new bibliographical analysis, on-going research projects, and heritage collections can be described and shared. The blog is housed on the official French research platform of the CNRS (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique), and the articles are published on the OpenEdition repository. For more substantive analysis, the society has created a free-access on-line journal entitled ‘Livre. Revue historique’. Each article submitted to the journal undergoes a thorough vetting process. The text is anonymously peer-reviewed by two experts in the field and, if accepted, undergoes copy editing before publication. The first articles will be published in the Autumn and feature some of the most important names in the field. The articles in the journal and the blog may be in English or French.
The society is also looking to go interact directly to encourage the development of book history in France. Thus it is hoped that specific masterclasses and workshops will be organised in conjunction both with libraries and universities as well as foreign partners. The society is keen to develop wider links across the international book community and, with this in mind, has created a network of foreign correspondents as well as contacting equivalent organisations in other countries to set up an international network of bibliographical societies. It is also looking into how best to house the research of scholars that would otherwise be dispersed and, over time, lost. Part of this will be housed on the purpose built wiki tool that will offer readers a free-access online bibliographic encyclopaedia.
President of the Société bibliographique de France,
Historian at the University of Rennes