There are works of literature whose impact on culture echoes for centuries. But that echo might not exist, were it not for the academic library and its role in preserving culture, said Kristin Hoffmann.
“What once happened still influences us; it still has an effect and is still worth learning and knowing about. Libraries, as publicly funded and based institutions, have an important role to play in preserving that culture and preserving that ability for society to learn what happened in the past and how that’s still influencing us,” said Hoffmann, a librarian at Western whose subject specialties include anthropology, archaeology and French, among others.
To demonstrate the cultural impact of a text and how the academic library has helped illuminate and maintain the text’s influence over hundreds of years, Hoffmann recently guided a group of French Studies students in Servanne Woodward’s Culture and Literature in Society: France in the 18th Century class through a display at the D.B. Weldon Library, showcasing Western Libraries’ collection and archived materials of Paul et Virginie, an iconic and influential 18th-Century French novel.
Paul et Virginie (or Paul and Virginia), by Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, was first published in 1788. Its love story is set on the island of Mauritius, under French rule. Written on the eve of the French Revolution, the novel is recognized as Bernardin’s finest and most popular work; it criticizes social class divisions, presents an Enlightenment view of religion and has influenced many writers, including Honoré de Balzac and Charles Baudelaire. Upon publication, the book was translated into most European languages and has influenced art, fashion and architecture.
“It was reprinted well into the 19th Century and it remained a bestseller, among other things, because it was part of a powerful movement of sentimentalism, including a return to nature and the encouragement of compassionate behaviour that eventually fostered abolitionism, human rights, and even the early seeds of animal rights,” Woodward explained.
“Even Marie-Antoinette dreamed of the simple life of Paul et Virginie on a remote tropical island, and she had her painter, Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun, execute a portrait of her in her garden wearing a white ‘creole’ or ‘countryside’ dress. This fashion was directly inspired by the writers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre,” she added.
“The novel was particularly successful because it made use of concurrent fashions and aspirations of the time, and what we would call popular culture today.”
At Weldon, the display showcased original copies of Paul et Virginie, along with translated and critical editions, illustrated editions published over centuries, art and architecture inspired by the book and research articles from scholars, illustrating a wide body of work that has come out, and continues to be produced, Hoffmann noted.
“The main reason it’s important libraries have these (original) materials is, because even though we are keeping them in a special facility, they are available for any researcher who wants to come in and see them. If these copies had ended up in a private collector’s home, to display on their shelf, as they are valuable and status symbols, they’re not available for any of you to see or for other researchers,” she said, noting the breadth of Weldon’s collection, including different translations and critical editions all feature distinct variations useful to scholars.
“We make a point of collecting these items because all of these variations add something unique to the scholarship and to the study of the work; it’s not just the words themselves, but it’s everyone that works on them and adds to them and interprets them that’s important (to the study).”
And this is why the academic library is important, she added. It preserves the original works alongside the scholarship that surround them, alongside critical works and research, making all of it available to academics and members of the public and showcasing the continued cultural importance of the texts, Hoffmann explained.
“Public libraries would collect the original works or later editions, but one of the things that really distinguishes a research library is it collects the research and criticism. We have hundreds of years’ worth of research and criticism on the author himself, and then about the works,” she said.
“Form the librarian’s perspective and what we do, it is to try to provide as much access to all of this as possible.”