In the footsteps of the ethnologist: the missions of Marceau Gast in the southern Sahara through his field notebooks

During his missions in the southern Algerian Sahara, Marceau Gast1, ethnologist, research director at CNRS, filled twelve field notebooks with his tight, sometimes scribbled handwriting, documenting his field missions (from 1960 to 1973).

Most of these field notebooks are in the 16.5X22, 13X21 (cm) format. These are Rhodia notebooks for its 1973 and 1974 fields trips2, “The reversible bookbinder” (La reliure réversible), for his field trips of and 1962-1963, or old school notebooks from the Heraklès brand on which Marceau Gast wrote most often with a blue ballpoint pen or pencil.

Each notebook contains on average between 40 and 60 pages (double-sided). Five notebooks describe in a sometimes very complete way, sometimes more succinctly, the missions of Marceau Gast on the ground, on a day to day basis. He wrote about his network of informants, his collaborators, his daily life, his reflections on his work as a researcher and the difficulties he encountered in the field. Two notebooks contain notes on Tuareg vocabulary, genealogy, calendar and food.

The online transcribing platform “Transcrire”

Transcrire is a digital humanities platform that integrates collections of research libraries in Human and Social Sciences. It comprises eleven collections of field notebooks and correspondence. Its objective is to make unpublished heritage collections accessible. It offers the possibility for anyone to contribute to the transcription of digitized manuscripts from scientific archives. This collaboration enriches the information and accessibility of the collections and paves the way for a deeper analysis of the documents.

Screenshot, home page of the Marceau Gast collection notebooks on Transcrire (August, 2020).

The association of Friends of the Berber Encyclopedia (Les Amis de l’Encyclopédie Berbère) keeps the originals Marceau Gast’s field notebooks. In 2016, they entrusted the notebooks to the team of the Consortium of Ethnologists of the TGIR Huma-Num with the aim of making them available online on Transcrire. Five notebooks were placed on the Transcrire platform in 2016, three more followed this year.

The transcription of the notebooks

Marceau Gast’s notebooks offer a unique opportunity to share with him the descriptions of his field, his thoughts on his work as a researcher and the difficulties he encounters. As mentioned in a previous post on linking the archives of the fund, the field notebooks can also inform about the involvement of the researcher’s informants.

This post is the opportunity for me to share my experience as a transcriber. When transcribing, one must respect the rules requested by the platform: to copy the text as it is displayed on the image, not to transcribe the crossed-out text, to respect line and paragraph breaks and to indicate illegible words. After each page transcription, do not forget to save the work before moving on to the next page. Once the notebooks are transcribed, it is necessary to move on to the verification (proofreading phase) before the validation is complet.

This work is a delicate operation, especially since Marceau Gast’s writing is not always clear. To facilitate reading and to transcribe as accurately as possible the characters and place names I had recourse to the index of names and places published in his PhD dissertation3.

While I read his notebooks to find information on sound recordings and his photographs, Marceau Gast’s notes on daily life, his meals, his naps, his walks, I often felt that I was sharing more than a simple ethnologist’s notebook. For example, the notebooks also tell us a lot about his perception of the 1960s period in Algeria. He mentioned in particular the rise of the National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale)4 which affects his work in the field, and sometimes he expresses his concern at the idea of no longer being able to return to his field of study: “So I feel that time is pressing more than ever, and my intuition was definitely good when I first came here. I am not sure that I will be able to return freely in the future »5.

On July 12, 1962, a few days after the independence of Algeria6, he wrote in his notebook: « the little that I have seen and known I have not exploited enough and now it is every day too late to find traditional life, festivals, milk, herds which give the nomads their true face »7.

I was fortunate to be able to share my experience with Karima Pedemas, research engineer at the National Center of Scientific Research (CNRS), head of the publication department and editor at the Institute for Research and History of Texts (IRHT). She has been transcribing Marceau Gast’s notebooks for four years now, which she describes as a long but fascinating work. She told me about her transcription experience:

I enthusiastically began to transcribe a collection that attracted me by its geography (the Sahara) and its theme (the Tuaregs of Ahaggar). I quickly understood that it was going to be difficult: Marceau Gast’s writing is special, sometimes illegible. At first, I would copy my transcripts onto a word file, it was such an effort to decipher that I was afraid I wouldn’t find them. Subsequently, this file allowed me to search for words, to cross-check for the spelling of a name or a word (Tuareg).”.

To help her with this work, she also referred to articles by Marceau Gast which enabled her to better understand the vocabulary of kinship among the Tuaregs.

For her, transcribing the field notebooks is a relevant way to contextualize the data collected during his field trips, during his surveys, and to compare them with the publications. We can see the field notebooks as “A kind of biography of the scientist who is sketched out in touches through the different missions, between the pages of description of the logistics of the trip, the supply lists, the difficulties of the road and the numerous met. Sometimes some transcribed pages leave me perplexed: I wonder how this can be exploited by another researcher.”

Karima Pedemas shared with us a passage which particularly touched her in the notebooks of 1973 and 1974 where she finds herself in the gaze of an observer mentioned by Marceau Gast on Wednesday October 31, 1973: « Want to stroll around doing nothing, euphoric weather, I would stay in bed all day long, if it were not for the obligation to work and if the people themselves did not force me to do so; because the public arrives without my needing to ask them to come, however I very quickly feel the need to have news of mine, to be emotionally connected with the world that I have left and which is also mine as much as this part of myself here in Idelès. I think of the gaze of an outside observer observing my work. Apparently, our investigations are carried out in a heterogeneous manner depending on the circumstances. I let myself be pushed by the public according to their interest or according to the instructors present. I feel like a cork floating with the current. Working otherwise would be neither profitable nor easy »8.

Today, we have four complete transcribed notebooks while the other five are still being transcribed. A search engine is available on the platform. It is possible for the user to type any word from their computer keyboard, whatever it is, and get a list of all the pages that mention it. The transcribed text therefore becomes data (text mining). For example, we can type in the name of an informant, a place, and get to find the passages concerning him.

Led by Paul-Emmanuel Bernard (MQB-JC) and Anaïs Wion (Institute of African Worlds – UMR8171), and with the coordination of Fabrice Melka and the association of Mediterranean House of Humain Sciences (MMSH) Sound Archives, the platform has just obtained the support of the “collex-persée” project, which encourages collaborative approaches, digitization, enrichment of metadata, « The project aims to overhaul, stabilize and expand the service offer linked to the transcription of these manuscript corpus »9.

The field notebooks are true mirror books for the researcher. As we have been able to show and perhaps as you will discover by continuing our work, transcriptions sometimes turn out to be a challenge but the richness they contain advances research in HSS and makes it possible to better promote the archives of researchers…

Maryasha Barbé

Master « Métiers des archives et des bibliothèques. Médiation de l’histoire et humanités numériques ». Université Aix-Marseille.

  1. See over blogpost on Marceau Gast :  Véronique Ginouvès, Hommage à Marceau Gast, portrait d’un homme honnête du 21ème siècle, les carnets de la phonothèque, on ligne the 30 mars 2011 []
  2. This small and handy notebook, which the Rhodia brand created in 1934, is used by many French ethnologists to take their field notes. For example, this is the main brand that can be found at Annie-Hélène Dufour, and Christian Bromberger also used them. []
  3. Marceau Gast, Alimentation des populations de l’Ahaggar, étude ethnographique, Mémoire du CRAPE VIII., Paris, AMG, 1968 []
  4. See : Jacques C. DUCHEMIN, Histoire du F.L.N., La table ronde, Paris, 1962, 331 p. []
  5. Translated from french « Je sens donc que plus que jamais le temps me presse, et décidément mon intuition était bonne au départ quand je suis venu ici. Je ne suis pas assuré de pouvoir revenir librement à l’avenir », Gast-Carnet-62-63, p. 14 Political tensions and their affect on the world of research preoccupied Marceau Gast giving rise to the book: Marceau GAST et Michel PANOFF, L’accès au terrain en pays étrangers et outre-mer, Paris, L’Harmattan, 1986. []
  6. See : Anne Liskenne, L’Algérie indépendante, Armand Colin, 2015, 288 p. []
  7. Translated from french « « le peu que j’ai vu et connu je ne l’ai pas assez exploité et maintenant il est chaque jour trop tard pour Sifaoui, retrouver la vie traditionnelle, les fêtes, le lait, les troupeaux qui donnent leur vrai visage aux nomades », Gast-Carnets – 62-63, p. 22. []
  8. Transalted from french « Envie de flâner de ne rien faire, temps euphorique, je resterai couché tte la journée, si ce n’était l’obligation de travailler et si les gens eux-mêmes ne m’y forçaient ; car le public arrive sans que j’ai besoin de le prier de venir cependant j’éprouve très vite le besoin d’avoir des nouvelles des miens, d’être reliés affectivement avec le monde que j’ai laissé et qui est aussi le mien autant que cette parcelle de moi-même ici à Idelès. Je pense au regard d’un observateur extérieur qui observerait mon travail. Apparemment nos enquêtes s’effectuent de façon hétéroclite par brides selon les circonstances. Je me laisse poussé par le public selon son intérêt ou selon les instructeurs en présence. Je me sens comme un bouchon flotter selon le courant. Travailler autrement serait ni rentable ni facile » []
  9. translated from french « Le projet vise à refondre, stabiliser et étoffer l’offre de service liée à la transcription de ces corpus manuscrits » []

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