RetroNews: History Witnessed Through the Press Collections of the BnF

Posted: 28-05-2019

This is a guest post from LIBER sponsor RetroNews; written by Etienne Manchette and translated by Amanda Maunoury

During a time in which history is reclaiming its place in societal debates and historical narratives must relate even deeper with the demands of social science research, RetroNews provides a place for the interpretations of history offered by academics, journalists, and writers.

Over the past two years, the press collections website of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) has been developed along two extensive axes: first, as a powerful research tool which enables the exploration of over three centuries of archives and, secondly, as a media source in its own right which aims to make history more accessible to a wider audience by proposing unique narrative forms.

With RetroNews, we wish to offer interpretations of history for the general public. We also aim to provide the educational tools and academic knowledge necessary to shed light on current events in the context of deeper historical perspectives.

The past in the present

Some examples of the subjects we have covered include the French Revolution, working class history, fake news during the 19th century, political history, social history and literature, scientific advances, and conflicts and international migrations, as well as the permanent circulation of information which foreshadowed our current 24-hour news cycle. We work closelywith historians, journalists, and academics on a daily basis in order to provide an interpretation of the past which echoes the present.

Press archives as primary sources

RetroNews remains, at its core, a website which focuses on history; it aims to render raw archival content more accessible by using innovative methods, such as videos, sounds, and short immersive texts, to help bring history to life.

During the past few years, the means of sharing historical interpretation have expanded to include films, video games, and even festivals. These innovations question traditional notions of historical knowledge, sources, access, and critical approaches. For RetroNews, the enjoyment that comes fromunderstanding the past is related to contemporary issuesjust as much as public history.

For RetroNews, sharing our popular history and making sense of the plethora of stories that can be found in the library’s press collections involves providing editorial content, podcasts, and videos for the public.

Daily collaborations with researchers and journalists

Interpretations of our archives can be approached through various methods. This is why we work daily with researchers and historians (including specialists of the history of the press) who make use of the primary sources present in RetroNews. These fruitful collaborations inspire unique stylistic approaches which make the editorial content of RetroNews particularly valuable.

In order to better understand each period of history covered by our archives, we call upon the expertise of renowned trail-blazing historians. Our many contributors include Jean-Clément Martin, a specialist of the French Revolution and its heritage, who has proposed a short series of articles detailing the War of the Vendée, along with Guillaume Mazeau, who has proposed a “new chronology of the French Revolution”. Furthermore, Nicolas Offenstadt has also written for us about a variety of subjects, including the global transformations which followed World War I, the birth of the German Democratic Republic in 1949, and the construction of the Eastern Bloc. Likewise, Emmanuelle Retaillaud has immersed our readers in the cultural history of the interwar period. Anne-Claude Ambroise-Rendu has also made history come alive by writing about the theatrical trial of the infamous serial killer Henri Désiré Landru, which captivated the French press in 1921.

In addition to the expertise of academic historians, the skills of storytellers like William Blanc, Mélodie Simard-Houde, Anton Serdeczny, Jean-Numa Ducange, and Anne-Claire Bondon have served to shed light on diverse subjects such as medieval mythology, the beginnings of news reporting, and the history of marginalized populations.

Likewise, journalists, writers, and bloggers have provided interviews with public figures like the comic book artist Jacques Tardi and the historian Michel Winock, along with articles issued from snippets of news and from social history, common themes which are plentiful in the press. These stories,read with a fresh perspective, reflect an omnipresent past.

RetroNews, the press collections website of the BnF

Created by BnF-Partenariats, a subsidiary of the BnF, RetroNews aims to increase the digitisation of paper press collections which are increasingly at risk of serious damage over time. Thanks to an enriched digitisation process made possible by optical character recognition and named-entity recognition, we have been able to gather a selection of publications which includes a balancedrange of periods, regions, political views, and formats.

Through its dedicated access to the press collections of the BnF, RetroNews wishes to accompany users in their discovery of a considerable pool of resources which span from the 17th century to the end of World War II and the establishment of the French Fourth Republic. During this period, a new chapter in the history of the written press commenced as newspapers issued during the French Resistance were followed by newly-founded national publications.

Paris, May 2019, Etienne Manchette translated by Amanda Maunoury

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