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The Voltaire Library Project: using digital humanities to understand Voltaire’s influences

Tuesday, 24 July, 2018

Lena Zlock is a rising senior at Stanford University double-majoring in History and French. She is the principal investigator of the Voltaire Library Project, a digital humanities study of Voltaires personal library. She will be working at the Voltaire Lab during the summer of 2018. Her work is supported by the Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education at Stanford University. Lena can be reached at or @LZlock89.

In the firmament of the Siècle des Lumières, Voltaire is the sun. His presence in the Enlightenment world is enormous by any metric. In life as in death, Voltaire’s name came to signify those who challenged orthodoxy and convention. When asked why philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre had not been arrested for his polemical critique of the Algerian War, French president Charles de Gaulle, simply replied, ‘One does not arrest Voltaire’.

To understand Voltaire’s thinking and impact, where better to look than his massive library of 6700 volumes? Much like its owner, the library has both a fascinating history and afterlife. It was sold to Catherine the Great of Russia by Madame Denis – Voltaire’s niece and lover – shortly after the author’s death in 1778. Catherine the Great was one of Voltaire’s most powerful admirers, writing to him in 1763, ‘By chance your works fell into my hands; and since then I have never stopped reading them, and have not wished to have anything to do with books which were not written as well and from which the same profit could not be derived.’[1] In 1779 the books started the perilous journey from Voltaire’s château in Ferney all the way to the Hermitage in St Petersburg. Under the careful watch of the Empress, the library was sorted and placed into the Hermitage Palace, alongside the library of fellow philosophe Denis Diderot. However, the contents of Diderot’s library were dispersed throughout the Hermitage. Voltaire’s library thankfully remained intact, with an occasional book identified as mistakenly belonging to the sire of Ferney.

Battle of the books

‘Before the Title of the Battle’, frontispiece to the Battle of the Books in the 1710 edition (London) of Jonathan Swift’s ‘A Tale of A Tub’.

His library is extraordinary for this period not only because it remains intact, but because it was a working library, rather than a collector’s library. Gorbatov’s thesis of ‘the working library’[2] is especially helpful in understanding Voltaire’s interaction with his books. It was active and even chaotic, akin to Jonathan Swift’s depiction of a ‘battle of the books’. But even with this flurry of activity, Voltaire’s was a curated library for the purpose of research and writing, which means that deliberate choices were made as to what became part of the collection. With marginalia in over half the books, the story of the library is in many ways the origin story of Voltaire’s corpus.

In 1961, Soviet researchers put together a catalogue of the library, including titles; names of authors, editors, translators, and publishers; places of publication; and real and false data for books that were censored or printed underground. In studying the library, researchers usually flip through the catalogue to find a particular book (e.g. did Voltaire have works by John Locke? Yes, but not the ones you think). What if we could study hundreds or even thousands of books at once?

With the advent of digital humanities, we can now visualize the full breadth and depth of Voltaire’s ‘laboratory’. How many works of history did Voltaire own? Science? Theology? Jurisprudence? Did he purchase these books or were they gifted to him? How many were clandestinely printed? Where is the historical weight of the library? The goal of my project is to create a three-dimensional portrait of Voltaire’s ‘life of the mind’.

My current project is building a database of the library. I took the library catalogue and ran it through Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, making it machine readable (I am lucky to have Russian as my native language, otherwise the structure of the catalogue would have been unintelligible). Each of the 6700 books is organized along 130 metadata categories – including data on authorship, publication dates and locations, and censored works. These categories combine modern typologies with those intelligible to Voltaire and his contemporaries, such as 17th-century bookseller hierarchies of genre.

The database is enriched through linked data, drawing on repositories like Wikidata, Geonames, Virtual International Authority File (VIAF), and BnF Gallica. My research is guided by two questions: what forces – social, literary, geographic, political – shaped Voltaire’s library? And what in the library shaped Voltaire’s corpus? These questions are often two sides of the same coin. Using a big-data approach to the library, we can visualize the patterns that shaped the library, and in turn Voltaire’s own work. My goal is to recreate the experience Voltaire himself had as a researcher in the library. The library database will form part of a larger cross-referencing system. This system will incorporate a digitised version of Voltaire’s marginalia, as well as the current Electronic Enlightenment database. Users of the database will be able to reference his marginalia in the books, as well as letters to and from the individuals – authors, publishers, editors – in the library. By immersing ourselves in the laboratory of Voltaire’s mind, we can gain new insights into the Enlightenment’s lodestar.

– Lena Zlock

[1] Quoted in Inna Gorbatov, ‘From Paris to St Petersburg: Voltaire’s library in Russia’, Libraries & the Cultural Record, vol.42, No.3 (2007), p.308-324 (p.308).

[2] Gorbatov, ‘From Paris to St Petersburg’, p.314.