USC Digital Voltaire

About the USC Voltaire Letters Project

The USC Voltaire Letters Project: A Polymathic, Multimedia-Rich Digital Initiative

Danielle Mihram[1], July 2017

The USC Voltaire Letters: A Unique Opportunity

In Spring 2015 one library catalog record came to my attention: Voltaire correspondence, 1741-1777, a collection of manuscripts located in our Special Collections Department. This correspondence consists of thirty original autograph letters and four poems authored by Voltaire (François-Marie Arouet, 1694-1778)[2] and his circle, including leading figures of the Enlightenment such as Jean le Rond d’Alembert (1717-1783), Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia (1712-1786, King of Prussia: 1740-1786), and, Madame de Pompadour (1721-1764), the acknowledged mistress of Louis XV (1710-1774, King of France: 1715-1774[3]). These letters were acquired in 1945 (from a catalog published by the Cosmopolitan Science and Art Service Company[4]) by Christian R. Dick (the University Librarian at that time), and they were originally housed in the Hoose Library of Philosophy[5].  They were subsequently merged (exact date unknown) into our USC Libraries’ Special Collections, and the collection was recently re-catalogued as the current title, Voltaire correspondence, 1741-1777[6]

The existence of our manuscript collection was known by Theodore Besterman (editor of Voltaire’s correspondence) who, apparently, had photographic reproductions of 29 of our manuscripts. In his various publications of Voltaire’s correspondence, including the monographic series Complete Works of Voltaire[7], he identifies most of the letters in our collection as manuscripts in the “James Harmon Hoose Library of Philosophy, USC Libraries, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California [state], United States (SHELFMARK: MS fF840, v935d).”  This information also appears in the online database, Electronic Enlightenment, which includes Voltaire’s correspondence[8].

One additional autograph letter included in this project is a letter to Voltaire, dated 12 November 1770, from one of Frederick II’s nephews, Frederick William II (1744-1797, King of Prussia: 1786-1797), and located in our Feuchtwanger Memorial Library[9] in our Special Collections Department. 

Throughout the eighteenth century, the exchange of letters was tantamount to an intellectual powerhouse at work. Their impact on the Enlightenment was electrifying.  In the case of Voltaire, his voluminous correspondence is a multifaceted private expression of self, through epistolary exchanges, and it offers a multi-layered perspective of one of the leading minds that defined his century. 

With regard to our collection of his letters, it occurred to me that we had a unique opportunity to engage in our current and newly emerging modes of scholarly communication by enriching these letters via a digital multi-modal critical edition.  Essentially, the use of a polymathic approach would give us the opportunity to explore the multiple interdisciplinary dimensions of these letters, and it would include: the compilation of metadata; high-resolution images of our original manuscripts; an examination of the letters as “artifacts” (e.g. quality of paper and handwriting analysis); paleographic elements (e.g. the accurate transcription of each letter); as well as each letter’s translation in English; plus, the writing of a multitude of detailed notes relating to the people, events, and places which are noted within the Voltaire letters.     

This collection of letters thus constitutes for us, the foundation for an experimental librarian-led digital humanities project, with the initial goal to create a scholarly critical edition that could form a basis, as well as a set of best practices, for curated online projects on Voltaire’s epistolary manuscripts, located in so many other institutions’ Special Collections departments.

The USC Voltaire Letters Project

Most digital humanities projects are initiated on a small scale, involving a limited number of researchers and very modest funding.  For the initial stage of our project, I arranged for the digitization of all of the letters for their inclusion in our Digital Library[10] and then I assembled a team of colleagues with a variety of specific skill sets and expertise.  In this context, I very much echo Maria Bonn’s comment: “I advocate for and have my own experience of the value of scholarly collaboration, a value arising from the interplay of perspectives and expertise made possible by collaboration and from the efficiency engendered by a suite of complementary strengths” (Bonn 206)[11].

As a start, we successfully competed for one of our Dean’s (Catherine Quinlan’s) Challenge Grants.  This small one-year grant (which began in May 2016) has provided us with the necessary “start-up financial support” for the work to be undertaken by students who were assigned specific tasks.

At the outset, we had to decide on several issues so as to contextualize the letters within the digital humanities, including: framing the letters within a particular scholarly and methodological structure; deciding on a digital platform; selecting an editorial framework (as well as editorial parameters); positioning the letters for potential use within emergent humanities research and curriculum models; and, developing a roadmap for funding beyond our initial grant.

In the context of our envisioning a critical edition of the letters, we needed to analyze each letter (or poem) very carefully, and, in addition, check the information for each letter provided online in the Electronic Enlightenment. With regard to the transcriptions, we needed (and I have created) a guide[12] on the transcription conventions of French 18th century manuscripts based on the suggestions made by Gabriel Audisio[13] and, in particular, by Béatrice Beaucourt-Vicidomini[14]

I trained our students (a total of four, though not all were recruited concurrently) to read and contextualize the letters’ language and spelling as they were written in the eighteenth-century. Their primary task was to create detailed indexes of: places, names, events, and published works noted in the letters. Their enthusiasm in participating in “real research” cannot be overstated.  They were, on an ongoing basis, highly motivated because of their handling “real paper” (their words!) crafted in the eighteenth-century, and featuring watermarks; they discovered the “amazing” (their word!) pace of handwriting with a quill pen, indicated by identifying the differences in ink concentration on the line leading to necessary dipping of the pen into the ink. In the context of scholarly research, they were equally thrilled to read the thoughts and worries expressed in these letters by individuals such as the King of Prussia and the other leading figures with whom Voltaire communicated, as well as to find, and then comprehend (with visible delight), the code words and pseudonyms used in the letters in order to evade the French King’s censure. Reading history as it unfolds in “real time”, yet centuries ago is, according to them, an unforgettable experience.

These are student learning outcomes that we shall further explore as we collaborate with discipline-based faculty in Phase II of our Project (2017-2018).

The Project’s Goals

The targeted audience of our project extends beyond researchers at USC. In the first instance, we are targeting any scholars and advanced researchers who use primary materials in our collections relating to the USA, Europe, and beyond.

During Phase I of our Project (2016-2017) our goals for the Project became much clearer so that our initial two goals[15] were soon extended to six goals.

More specifically our goals are:
  1. Both to highlight our special collections’ primary and secondary sources within a specific area, and to continue incorporating such resources into interdisciplinary research and curricular activities.
  2. To serve as one of the very first collaborative interdisciplinary digital humanities initiatives being entirely created and authored by librarians, this growing out of the USC Libraries.
  3. To make available a model of interdisciplinary collaboration, one that provides multiple levels of discovery so as to open new research perspectives on major Enlightenment events and persons.
  4. To reach scholars and students beyond the traditional disciplines generally associated with Voltaire and the Enlightenment, and to develop strategic alliances by bringing together scholars and students from different fields of the humanities (history, literature, philosophy, art history) together with scholars in the social sciences (such as international relations and political science), this then reflecting upon the role that epistolary and historical sources can play in contemporary humanistic and social sciences debates.
  5. Through collaboration with our teaching faculty, first to develop a model and a tool for classroom instruction and research, this in tandem with mounting institutional pressures to teach students multiple literacies and new multi-modal forms of expression, and then to engage students at all levels of scholarship and research in the humanities[16].
  6. To collaborate with international institutions (such as the Voltaire Foundation and the Institut et Musée Voltaire).

Scalar as our Our Publishing Platform

We selected Scalar ( as our publishing platform. This USC-based (open source) online publishing tool was developed at our University by the Alliance for Networking Visual Culture for the electronic journal Vectors[17]. Multimedia-rich, it supports embedded video and audio along with functionalities for visualizations, annotations, extensive media tagging, and direct importations of content from partnership with several archives such as the Hemispheric Institute’s Digital Video Library    (, the Internet Archive (, and Critical Commons (

Our project includes nine library employees (library faculty and staff at the USC Libraries), whose specific skill sets and expertise include: metadata creation, web design, Scalar “know-how”, and, including myself (as principal investigator), librarians with specific knowledge-based specialization.  The project also includes two volunteers (one a former student and the other a former library intern), an eighteenth-century consultant (a colleague in the French and Italian Department and the holder of the French Ministry of Education’s award, Ordre des Palmes Académiques), as well as 4 student assistants. One of these students is now a contributor and a volunteer as well[18]. As the project continues to provoke interest, a larger number of faculty and students will have the opportunity to contribute to its development.

Currently (Summer 2017), this project stands at its initial stage of its implementation: Creating a polymathic and multi-modal critical edition of the Voltaire letters in our collection. The second phase of the project (with external funding) will allow for (editorially-controlled) user-generated content by enabling users to “mark up” texts, maps, illustrations, as well as born-digital materials so as to further enrich the content, so that the project will develop “organically” over time.

The USC Voltaire Letters Project and The Digital Humanities [19]

Our project can be situated at the intersection of several genres in digital scholarship, digital publishing, and the digital humanities.

In some ways, it is part of a line of projects typically referred to (in the Digital Humanities’ environment) as digital archives (though more strictly speaking, and in library parlance, they are digital collections). These types of projects began as hypertext systems on CD-ROM in the late 1980s and then moved onto the Web in the early-to-mid 1990s.  The aims of these digital archives/collections are many and they often overlap:
In particular, our project fits within the overall aim of those digital archives/collections that are constructed as, and at times have been categorized as, thematic research collections. These are collections that bring together primary sources and related material in order to support explicitly research on a particular theme: e.g. Valley of the Shadow ( or The Digital Gazetteer of the Song Dynasty (

At the same time, our project (unlike the earlier traditional digital archives/collections) seeks to describe, situate and showcase a particular collection held and maintained by a particular institution. In this context, our project is more like the online scholarly catalogs that various museums have quite recently begun to adopt, in particular since The Getty funded the development of the Online Scholarly Catalog Initiative (OSCI) toolkit, launched in 2009, and whose goals are: “to create models for online catalogues that will dramatically increase access to museum collections; make available new, interdisciplinary, up-to-date research; and revolutionize how this research is conducted, presented, and utilized.”

Initial Interest in our Project

At this stage of development (August 2017), our project is already eliciting attention.

Student Engagement in our Project

Equally very important to us is our own students’ enthusiasm in participating in our project.  A couple of responses to the questions in a short survey about the Project, (distributed in April 2017) can serve as examples of the project’s impact on student engagement:

In response to the question,

            Has your work and your experience, while working on the Voltaire letters, changed your way of thinking about the subject, the research process, and your approach to literature and history from those learning experiences?
             Please say how.

Shekinah Thornton (Junior, at the time, and a contributor) noted:

I would certainly say that I am more interested in Voltaire, his works and life, and the works and lives of his correspondents and how they were all intertwined than I’ve ever had before. I think my love of research has also greatly increased since I started this project, and I really appreciated the experience as a member of this project at the end of it all.

And, to the question,

            Would you recommend the project to other students? Why?

one of our student volunteers and a contributor (Sasha Pearce) responded as follows (echoing many other similar comments by our students):

 “Yes! This is, in practical terms, better than almost any class you can take. Here, you are surrounded by multiple experts, from different fields, and you have the opportunity to learn how challenging and rewarding research in the real world is, and what it ‘looks like.’ Plus, you have the option to work a lot when you have time, and slow down when exams start, or life hits. Although the deadlines are of course real and important, this is a long-term project and that just feels different than anything done in class. (…) Professors get so loaded down with their classes and publications that they can't provide students (or post-students) with the same quality of support. Helping this team has certainly helped me and for that I am forever grateful!”


[1] Danielle Mihram, Leavey Library (USC Libraries) is Project lead, editor, and translator into English of the USC Voltaire Letters Collection.  Author (in this book) of:  About the Book Cover Illustration; About the Project; About the Collection; Transcription Conventions.
[3] Until he reached maturity, in 1723, his kingdom was ruled by his great-uncle, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans, as Regent of France.
[4] Cosmopolitan Science and Art Service Company, “Voltaire, Fr. M. Arouet de (1694-1778) A Fine Collection Original Letters by Voltaire and His Circle,” New York, 1945, cat.17, entry no. 1706.
[6] Voltaire. Voltaire correspondence, 1741-1777. Vault: Collection 6006 Box 1.
[7] Complete Works of Voltaire. Institut et Musée Voltaire, Voltaire Foundation: 1968-
[8] Electronic Enlightenment – Letters and Lives Online. Voltaire Foundation: Oxford University, 2008-  . (
[10] Voltaire Correspondence, 1742-1777.
[11] Maria Bonn, "Collaborating and Communicating: Humanities Scholars Working and Talking Together," College & Research Libraries News, vol. 78, no. 4, 2017, pp. 206-209.
[12] See Section: “Transcription Conventions for the Voltaire Correspondence at USC.”  See also Section: “Diplomatic or Semi-diplomatic Transcriptions.”  
[13] Gabriel Audisio,  “Transcrire un Texte,” La Revue Française de Généalogie, 208 (Oct-Nov 2013): 52-53.  See also:  Gabriel Audisio and Isabelle Rambaud, Lire le Français d'hier: Manuel de Paléographie Moderne XVe-XVIIIe siècle, Cinquième édition revue et augmentée. Paris: Armand Colin, 2016.
[14] Béatrice Beaucourt-Vicidomini, Manuel de Paléographie Moderne, XVIe-XVIIIe Siècles. Paris: Archives & Culture, 2012: 44.
[15]  Our initial two goals appear here as Goals 1 and 4.
[16] In this context, see: Laying the Foundation – Digital Humanities In Academic Libraries, edited by John W. White and Heather Gilbert.  Purdue University Press, 2016.
[17] Tara McPherson, “Introduction: Media Studies and Digital Humanities,” Cinema Journal 48, No. 2 (Winter 2009): 119-123.
[18] See Section:  “Project Developers.” 
[19] I would like to express here my thanks to one of our team member, Curtis Fletcher (Associate Director of the Polymathic Labs, USC Sidney Harman Academy for Polymathic Study), who provided me with examples for the various categories of digital archives listed in this section.
[20] Humanities Intensive Learning and Teaching -