Des Coiffures pour l'histoire: un descriptif des gravures dans l’almanach de Marie-Antoinette, Le Trésor des Graces

On the Development of Des Coiffures pour l’histoire: A Brief Case Study

The success of scholarly digital projects in the liberal arts college context depends upon broad collaborative support from experts across departments.

Library staff in Wellesley College’s Library and Technology Services (LTS) provided three distinct types of support for the Des Coiffures pour l’histoire / Between Hairstyle and History project: collections, research, and publishing. What follows is a brief case study detailing these three aspects of project support.

Collections Support

In 2014, while scanning a Parisian antiquarian bookseller’s catalog for possible acquisitions, Ruth Rogers, curator of Special Collections, spotted a tantalizing entry: a small 18th century almanac, bound in dark red morocco and stamped in gold with the coat of arms of Marie-Antoinette. The dealer asserted that no other copies of this exact edition were known to bibliographies or listed in international research collections. Most likely, it had been made up of sheets from other almanacs and put into this binding for the queen herself.  With generous support from Library benefactor and former Wellesley College Trustee Lia Gelin Poorvu ‘56, this precious book was acquired for Wellesley’s Library.

In Spring 2016, students in French 303: “Long Live the Queen!”: Women, Royalty and Power in the Ancien Régime studied this almanac in their coursework. Early in the class, Ruth gave a guest lecture to students, introducing this important acquisition and also providing a broader orientation on the book in the hand-press period. This covered early letterpress printing methods, formats, and illustration methods such as woodcut, engraving, and etching. The class was introduced to the rococo book beyond the almanac, with other examples from the Library's collections. They discussed publishers and booksellers, and the audiences for various popular forms of reading. They finished with an overview of contemporary databases and bibliographies specializing in rare and out of print books.

To enable the creation of this digital project, the Trésor des Grâces almanac was digitized by the Northeast Document Conservation Center; the images were then prepared for use by the class by Marci Hahn-Fabris, digital collections librarian. Students in the class had the benefit of interacting directly with the physical object itself, as well as the convenience of having full access to digital surrogates for their own research needs.

Research Support

To prepare for their exploration of this artifact of 18th-century publishing and aristocratic life in the ancien régime, students in the course worked in class and individually with Laura O’Brien, research and instruction librarian, to perform extensive research into diverse topics including hairstyles and fashion of the French court, theatrical performances, engraving practices, gaming, and book sales during the Enlightenment. Key primary and reference sources for study were collected on the course research guide and a Zotero library.

One important area of instruction provided to students as they pursued their research projects was in basic methods of visual analysis. While some students were able to identify and contextualize their coiffure relatively easily, others had hairstyles whose origins were less obvious. In the absence of textual evidence from a reference source or some other clear inspiration, they were encouraged to focus on what they could discern from the image itself. Is the hairstyle ornate or relatively simple? Is the primary decoration flowers, or jewels? What is its general shape, and is that shape somehow suggestive or emblematic? How does this engraving fit into the context of other engravings from the period on similar themes? These tactics of visual literacy instruction in turn opened further avenues for productive research and analysis.

Publishing Support

This exhibit was produced in Scalar by Jenifer Bartle, manager of digital scholarship initiatives, using content created and gathered by enrolled students and faculty. Students wrote and submitted their contributions in French, then translated them into English, and shared them via Google Docs.

Jenifer’s idea to display the bilingual text in equivalent columns, in which neither language was placed in a position of primacy, was brought to life by Kara Hart, systems librarian. Kara wrote custom CSS code to enable the two versions of the texts to flow around the study image on each page of the exhibit. Supplementary images were formatted as pop-up notes in Scalar to allow the main hairstyle image to remain in a position of prominence, and to maintain a streamlined, uniform look across the exhibit.

Tasks involved in the production of the exhibit included: processing, uploading, naming, and creating metadata for each primary and supplementary image; creating, organizing, and making pathways between individual pages of the exhibit; pasting and editing text in source/html mode in order to manage it within the correct CSS-controlled containers; and formatting paragraphs, italics, hyperlinks, notes, citations, French-style quotation marks, etc.

There are tradeoffs involved in the decision as to whether to employ enrolled student labor in the final production of exhibits such as this or whether to leverage other forms of labor, such as paid student assistants or staff. For this assignment/project, the primary pedagogical focus was research and analysis, and not learning a new web publishing platform. A similar assignment could be crafted to involve the students themselves in the production of the final digital exhibit; this would require the dedication of additional time and instructional support, likely at the expense of other important elements of the curriculum. There is no one best answer to this tradeoff; the decision depends on many factors, such as the pedagogical goals of the assignment, the accessibility of the platform, and the availability of paid student or professional staff to perform the digital labor required.  

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