World Literature in the Digital Age

The Bodmer Foundation is home to a ‘library of world literature’ that represents an exceptional archive of the human mind.

Advances in Digital Humanities have enabled the Bodmer Lab to digitise this archive and extract its most meaningful elements. This data, which will soon become available online to both researchers and the general public, will be accompanied by regular publication of research articles.

Image: Lithography by Eugène Delacroix for the French translation of Goethe’s Faust (Paris, 1828)

The Martin Bodmer Foundation maintains an exceptional collection of written documents, extending from the very first traces of writing right up to the present day. All these have been gathered together as important witnesses of world literature. The Bodmer Lab is employing digital technology to develop its research into the structure of this archive of the human mind.

Suivez l’actualité des numérisations sur Instagram

Pour plus d'informations

Notre carnet sur Tumblr

Subscribe to our newsletter

The collection acquired by Martin Bodmer during the second third of the 20th century differs from other rare book projects on a similar scale through the very scope of its ambition. It was intended to be, in the words of its creator, a ‘library of world literature’ (Bibliothek der Weltliteratur). ‘Literature’ for Bodmer meant much more than just poetry or fiction: his collection brings together scientific and legal treatises, religious works, musical scores, and much more.

The project is studying this collection as the work of a man deeply embedded in his time: someone who was vice-president of the International Committee of the Red Cross from 1947-1964, and who was keen to give shape to the humanistic, even mystic vision that he had for Weltliteratur. He did this through the purchase of rare books and manuscripts, which he intended to illustrate the accomplishments of the human mind over more than four millennia and the interaction and mutual comprehension of widely different people.

Two objectives are accomplished by the selective digitisation of this collection: first, it will put documents that are usually too rare and delicate to be freely consulted into the hands of researchers, students, and the general public ; and second, it will demonstrate the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana’s strong intellectual coherence through the structuring of its database and by the selection of the work put online.

We do not have here a mere archiving, compulsive and hasty, of as many works as possible, as is too often the case with other projects where innovative research is sacrificed in favor of quantity of data. The criteria and choices concerning digitisation go hand in hand with research into the singular characteristics of this ‘library of world literature’, research that draws upon Martin Bodmer’s countless unpublished notes and the paper catalogue of his collection.

What is the hierarchy hidden in these 100’000 works? What techniques in digitising the catalogue would shed a real light on the strongest and most original ideas embedded in its structure?

The emphasis in this project on the idea of ‘world literature’ touches upon a series of dilemmas that come up time and again in Digital Humanities. Preference is given first and foremost to a digitisation which reflects the structure of the Bodmer collection itself (“smart data”), rather than to an exhaustive approach (“big data”) that would include everything in the catalogue. Our research is limited to a select number of important clusters or sub-collections: those most likely to interest researchers. These include, for example, the series of variations on the theme of Faust, which contains nearly a thousand titles; the exceptional collection of Shakespeare editions; the few hundred incunabula; and the series of works in the author’s own handwriting, many of which remain unpublished.

Over the course of its development, the project has involved close collaboration with specialists in literature, in book conservation, in information technology and in engineering. It aims to create a dialogue between people in these disciplines, often unaware of each other or conducting a kind of dialogue of the deaf. It also hopes to create a chain reaction among researchers in literature, demonstrating that techniques from information technology can help in renewing research methods in the humanities.