Home > About the "Poor Sinners' Pamphlets" Project

About the "Poor Sinners' Pamphlets" Project

Class in MSU Main Library The “Poor Sinners' Pamphlets” is a digital collection of German-language pamphlets describing and often sold at executions of criminals in what is now Germany, France, Poland, and the Czech Republic during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The project seeks to reveal the stories contained in a collection of pamphlets as well as to explore and render legible through the collection the affordances, limitations, and ethical issues of applying digital technologies to archival materials – especially to archival materials representing the lives and deaths of historical individuals. Throughout the semester, students have dealt with questions, including how do we handle and  digitize fragile archival documents? How do we most effectively clean up a dataset, in order to retain as much of the “original” information as possible? They have also questioned how we rely on modes of representation, acts of “violence,” as Lawrence Venuti writes of translation, when we reduce individuals’ stories to data points? How can we make transparent the choices we have made in order to render these individual stories to a broader scholarly public? How can we reveal these stories without sensationalizing their subjects? This website is an attempt to present these texts, which provide illuminating micro-histories of Western European culture and society, but it is also intends to prompt reflection on what that process means – for these individual histories themselves as well as the humanities as a whole.

One of the central questions that emerged in the course of the semester and the project was the ethics of representing in a digital form the lives and stories of the humans described in these documents. Indeed, the so-called "right to be forgotten" is an ongoing debate in contemporary German jurisprudence (see Kodde). There are strong arguments against recapitulating the violence described in these documents - violence committed by those described and enacted on them through execution. And yet we feel that these pamphlets and their digital presentation still has much to tell us about how technology - both in the 18th and 19th centuries as well as today - exerts power over texts and bodies. Through the digital analyses, exhibits, and reflections on the digital methods used to create this project, this site contextualizes these documents for the viewer, bringing them to other historical situations in which technology has been used to control and enact violence on other humans. These documents are otherwise freely available to the public through MSU Special Collections. In presenting them - and their historical moment - on this site, we hope to contribute to ongoing debates over how technologies enhance - but also deform - bodies and texts and the deeply ambivalent politics of representation created by the rise of digital technologies.  

The "Poor Sinner's Pamphlets" is a project created by twelve undergraduate and gratude students in the course AL 340/891 Digital Humanities Seminar, offered at Michigan State Unviersity in the spring semester 2016. The course’s goal is to provide students passionate about the digital humanities from across the university, with knowledge and skills pertaining to digital information creation, dissemination, and analysis. For them, it has been an opportunity to create a curated collection (or is it an archive?) of criminal German broadsheets and brining content from a library catalogue and archive into a more digital form. Out of the over 1400 documents, books, and manuscripts in the MSU Criminology Collection housed in Special Collections at the MSU Libraries, we have selected, digitized, and designed a website around a subset of 101 German and French pamphlets, which serves as a resource for scholars interested in criminology, eighteenth and nineteenth century European society and culture, and the case study as well as a prompt to reflect on the persistence of capital punishment in the twenty first century and its continuing role in societies around the globe.

Each student or a group of students were tasked with a specific portion of the project. These group projects, which guests can access via the tabs above, included:

  1. Data collection — Generating a excel spreadsheet according to MARC (Machine Readable Catalog) from the 1428 documents in the MSU Criminology Collection.

  2. Digitization – A group of students digitized the 101 document subset and color-corrected the images accordingly for clarity; they then uploaded to a cloud base drive.

  3. Website development and management via Omeka— a student designed and transferred all data to the server and managed the website, with an eye on the larger theoretical considerations of rendering our work and choices transparent while negotiating the differences between an archives and a collection. 

  4. Data Visualization — Students analyzed the data contained in the excel spreadsheet in order to tell stories about what languages, countries, and subject are represented in MSU archive and in our collection.

  5. Geocoding / Mapping — Students gathered and arranged geographical information in order to produce a spatial narrative of the documents, based on the information contained in the library catalogue and MARC records.

  6. Text Analysis – Students used OCR tools to extract the pamphlets text as well as computational methods to analyze the often descriptive titles of the pamphlets.

DH students learning about the history of the book at the MSU Special Collections

As a theoretical background intended to helps students work through the philosophical and ethical questions raised by our digital work with these documents, we also read and discussed texts pertaining to the digital humanities (Kirschenbaum, Theimer, Drucker, Pressner, Gitel) as well as core texts to the humanities (Foucault, Bowker and Star, Derrida, Benjamin, and Antoinette Burton, to name a few).

Some of the conversations that the students explored focused on the corporality of the digital, theories of and stories in the archive, the interconnection between technology, the book, and the body, the role of and problems of data and society, the image and its “aura,” the archive as a cultural product, and the historical entwinement of power, law, and capital punishment in European society. In the course of the semester, we have also come to questions of these well-established texts themselves inquiring into the limits and assumptions of the habitual ways we in the humanities have understood and written the relationship between technology and the body, the body and the book in the past half century. This website is thus a collection and analysis of the “Poor Sinners’ Pamphlets,” as well as reflection on them. At the same time, it is a collection of, analysis of, and reflection on how knowledge is produced and disseminated in both the digital and material world.

- Chad Bousley, Kylene Cave, Ian Clark, Shelby, Engelbrecht, Joyce Farley, Ryan Galer, Katie Grimes, Melissa Klamer, Miranda Madro, Amanda Michels, Olivia Ramos, Krsna Santos, and Matthew Handelman.

We would like to thank many in the DH and Library community at MSU for their help in completing this project. In Special Collections, we would like to thank Peter Berg, Patrick Olsen, and Bexx Caswell-Olsen, for generously introducing us to the archive and allowing (and enabling) us to work therein. In the College of Arts and Letters and MSU Libraries, we would like to thank Kristen Mapes, Scott Schoperiay, Bobby Smiley, Thomas Padilla, and Magelone Bollen for their presentations on data, digital humanities tools, and crime and punishment in Germany and ongoing help figuring out how to work with both. 


Claudia Kodde (2016). "Germany's ‘Right to be forgotten’ – between the freedom of expression and the right to informational self-determination," International Review of Law, Computers & Technology, 30:1-2, 17-31, DOI: 10.1080/13600869.2015.1125154