To close this dossier, below are brief presentations of databases designed for historical or sociological researches in arts and culture. These presentations are all based on six questions reproduced below. The choice of the databases presented here derives from a willingness to open the dossier to other disciplines, in so far as they deal not only with literature and print, but also with music, visual and performing arts. The aim was to enlarge the topics under discussion in order to put the potential specificity of literary studies compared with other disciplinary fields into context.
The pioneering nature, rigour, and reach of these databases, which are all integral to research projects that have already resulted in several publications, guided the choice of the researchers we questioned. Six projects – among many others – at different stages of progress were selected: Björn-Olav Dozo (Université de Liège) presents the Collectif interuniversitaire d’étude du littéraire (CIEL) and its database of Belgian Francophone writers, works, and journals; Éric-Olivier Lochard (Université de Montpellier 3) and Antony McKenna (Université de Saint-Étienne) present the database created to publish the correspondence of Pierre Bayle; Solveig Serre (Centre d’études supérieures de la Renaissance/Centre de musique baroque de Versaille, CNRS) presents the Chronopéra database on performances at the Opéra de Paris from the seventeenth century; Camille Bloomfield (Université Paris-XIII), Viviana Birolli (Université Paris-I), Mette Tjell (University of Gothenburg), and Audrey Ziane (Université Aix-Marseille) present the Manart database dedicated to artistic and literary twentieth-century manifestos; Josée Vincent (Université de Sherbrooke) presents the databases on the book and publishing history, launched by the Groupe de recherches et d’études sur le livre au Québec (GRÉLQ); finally, Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel (École Normale supérieure de Paris) introduces us to the details of the ARTL@S project, particularly its database of exhibitions organized throughout the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – a project that has expanded remarkably in terms of interdisciplinarity, internationalization, teamwork, and learning objectives.
The questions asked were as follows:
1) How did the database project begin?
2) How was the corpus defined?
3) Is the design of the database supported by a specific theory and/or discipline?
4) Which software programs were used to build the database infrastructure and, as the case may be, to treat the data statistically?
5) Could you offer one or two examples of scientific (whether consensual or surprising) results obtained with the help of the database?
6) What plans do you have with regard to the perpetuity and accessibility of this database?
Each project has its own methodology, corpus, and research questions. However, the initial motivation is generally similar: dissatisfaction when faced with both isolation and an accumulation of vast quantities of data; a desire for better use of digital tools that are increasingly accessible and powerful; and the appeal of collective work bringing together data processing developers, project directors, and young researchers from various fields. Frequent, and sometimes decisive, team meetings, collective preparation of grant applications, research reports, and calls for papers, articles, etc. often play a seminal role in the design of the databases.
In most cases, the baseline corpus was a relatively homogenous object that was susceptible to being rigorously delineated by its objective existence as events or objects (such as an exhibition, opera performances, or published books), by its historical or geographical framework (national or international), or by its definition (the manifesto) – and even then, the corpus’ limits can still be open to debate. However, this is only a first stage, since the corpus itself is actually the result of the preliminary work of collecting and delving into archives, into primary and secondary sources that are sometimes scarce, disparate, or difficult to access (such as lists of Canadian publications before 1960) – hence the interest in centralizing them.
Such approaches are innovative compared with the anthology or monography models that have long been in vogue in the original disciplines of these databases (literary studies, history of art, musicology, etc.), but they still rely on and invite a critical reconsideration of such models; they also offer the opportunity to take into account the artistic works on which they are based, as in the case of Manart, Chronopéra, and ARTL@S. As for the theoretical frameworks, these initiatives are most often grounded in an assumed interdisciplinarity, creating links with social history, sociology, and even geography (in the case of ARTL@S, which distinguishes itself through its transnational and decolonial nature).
The software used varies but the teams have increasingly opted for open-source options such as MySQL. The case of Arcane, a software developed alongside the work on the Bayle correspondence, required many useful developments in this regard.
The results achieved thanks to these databases allow to revisit accepted chronologies or geographies (giving evidence, for example, of a change in the nature of the manifesto, increasingly signed by individuals from the 1980s onwards), or to clarify the importance and knowledge of certain cultural players, such as those that Björn Olav-Dozo calls the “animators” of Francophone literary life in Belgium, who are identified, located, and studied by CIEL. Thus, the issue of these databases often pertains both to heritage and to science. Bringing to light lesser-known geographical areas, works, or individuals, these databases on the one hand help to write renewed, and sometimes “subversive” (to quote Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel), artistic or literary histories, and to preserve the archive. On the other hand, by putting the data in series, they make their statistical or graphic treatment possible via different tools: social space modelling, network analysis, or geolocalization, for example.
In the end, how to access the amassed data is a real challenge, requiring time, effort, and therefore financial investment. The various projects seek to make their results public, there again in a joint heritage and scientific approach. Only by making a simplified interface with a research engine available to the public, the teams invite researchers to use it to conceive or study new objects of research. Data availability is often made possible thanks to a partnership with specialized institutions, likely to assure the database’s perpetuity (as French Huma-Num, a “Very Large Facility which aims to facilitate the digital turn in humanities and social sciences”), and in conjunction with the publication of articles, theses, and other works (this the case for the GRÉLQ in Quebec, and the CIEL in Belgium, for example).
We hope, therefore, that reading these presentations will give readers an overview of some of the socio-historical researches being conducted into arts and literature in the Francophone space by means of databases.