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Undergraduate Lena Zlock Digitally Maps Voltaire’s Library at The Hermitage

Stanford undergraduate Lena Zlock

Stanford student Lena Zlock is digitally mapping Voltaire’s personal library, which is housed in St. Petersburg, Russia. 

Michał Krenz
Nov 5 2018

Posted In:

In the News, Students

Lena Zlock (History and French, ’19) is conducting transformational research on Voltaire’s personal library that includes some unexpected ties to Imperial Russia. Zlock’s project employs digital tools to organize and analyze the contents of Voltaire’s library of over 6,700 books, currently housed in the Hermitage Museum. Zlock shared with CREEES some insight into her project, through which she has been able to reveal “the political, the geographic and the social trends that factored into [Voltaire’s] decision making ... when he was buying those books.”

The passage of Voltaire’s library into Russia is a story unto itself. An ardent supporter of Enlightenment thinking, Catherine the Great was particularly fascinated by Voltaire’s ideas and thus set out to acquire his library. In 1743, the Empress offered him a pension in exchange for the collection. When Voltaire passed away, Catherine wrote to his niece and offered several fur coats, jewels, a royal portrait, and the equivalent of $235,000 for the library. A deal was struck and the collection was packed up into crates and shipped to St. Petersburg, travelling overland by dogsled for part of the journey. Catherine installed the collection in the Hermitage, where it remains to this day, and opened the library to the public. Nicholas I eventually shut down public access to the library, the contents of which he deemed too radical. Only Alexander Pushkin was allowed unfettered access to the collection, which was guarded by the chief of secret police who would eventually put down the Decembrist Revolt of 1825.

In 1935, Soviet librarians started assembling a catalog of the entire collection. Professor Dan Edelstein, who heads the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages expressed to Zlock the vital importance of this catalog, which has become the key for her project. Zlock explained how, “The problem for Voltaire scholars is that the catalog is in Russian…when scholars in America or France try to approach it, they can see the books that are in English or in French, but they don't understand why they're organized in the way that they are, so it remained largely unstudied.”

Zlock, whose native language is Russian, has been able to translate and digitize this catalog, making it available for Voltaire scholars across the globe. Zlock's database will expand on the original catalogue by incorporating historical data repositories to enrich our understanding of the texts. Zlock has consulted with CREEES affiliated faculty and scholars in executing her research, namely Russia historian Nancy Kollmann and Margarita Nafpaktitis, the curator for Stanford Library’s Slavic and East European Collections.

For Zlock, this project has generated an interest in the material nature of books and their ability to serve as a conduit for ideas. Through her research, Zlock has encountered Voltaire’s marginalia notes, and even some of his eighteenth-century sticky notes, affixed to the pages with saliva. When discussing the relationship between material objects and digital tools, Zlock gave prescient insight about the lasting importance of the book, stating that, “When you do digital humanities, and we do big data, it's easy to lose sight of the individual objects. What I like about digitizing books is that you can actually get a sense of the material nature of the book itself. And if I ever do get a chance to teach this material, I'd want students to handle something like that in special collections.”

Zlock emphasized Voltaire’s global and interdisciplinary approach, which are echoed in the missions of most universities today. Zlock noted, “If you map just the languages in [Voltaire’s] library, there are at least 24 different languages...this was a man who wasn't just about France, he was about the world and he understood the importance of interconnectivity and interdisciplinary work, and he's corresponding with people from Arabic speaking countries, from Poland, from Russia, you name it. And so I think something to emphasize is that he was a global thinker.”