Disseminating Science

Sharing Knowledge

“The Blebenheim Library, which already has over 700 volumes, now has a cabinet installed in a corridor of the schoolhouse […]. While we were still building the cabinet, the first books sat on a shelf, where the first readers came to fetch them.”
Macé, Jean, Conseils pour l’établissement des bibliothèques communales (Advice for Establishing Municipal Libraries) 1864, p. 2

Monument to Jean-Henri Fabre in Avignon, circa 1914.

Portrait of Abbé Moigno, Auguste Bertsch, circa 1855.

Portrait of Arthur Mangin, Nadar studio, 1900.

Who were these “popularizers,” with their very varied backgrounds? Many of them had started out as scientists before they became specialized journalists or publication managers. There were entomologists, like Jean-Henri Fabre; mathematicians, like Edouard Lucas and Abbé Moigno

(editor-in-chief of the magazine Cosmos, in which he published translations of foreign articles in order to disseminate foreign scientists’ work), and chemists, like Arthur Mangin.

Portrait of Wilfrid de Fonvielle, Charles Reutlinger, 1880.

Portrait of Victor Meunier, Nadar, circa 1850.

Portrait of Émile Desbeaux, Nadar studio, [1894-1895].

Others, came to the specialty through journalism, like Wilfrid de Fonvielle, or literature, like Emile Desbeaux. Most of them shared the republican (i.e. anti-royalist) ideal of democratizing knowledge, but Victor Meunier was clearly the most politically active of them.

Popularization was also a task for non-profit organizations, who were also profoundly inspired by republican ideals. These included the Poly-technical and Philo-technical organizations, as well as smaller, local groups. Their activities and goals included organizing lectures and founding public libraries.

Poster for public lectures organized by the Philo-Technical Association, circa 1870.

Catalogue de la bibliothèque populaire des amis de l’instruction du XIIe arrondissement
(Catalogue of the Popular Library of the Society of Friends of Education in the 13th arrondissement)

Colbert Reading Room in Voyage d’un livre à travers la Bibliothèque nationale
(A Book’s Journey through the National Library)
, Henri Béraldi, 1893.

Public libraries for the masses did in fact play an important role in disseminating popular science. Library catalogues of the time show increasing numbers of that type of book and magazine. The Bibliothèque nationale (National Library) did its bit, too:

in 1868, a public reading room open 7 days a week was made available to everyone aged 16 and up. It was particularly popular with factory and office workers who couldn’t make it to the library on weekdays.

Inside view of one of the new public libraries, in Le Journal illustré (The Illustrated Journal), July 2, 1876.

Des vulgarisateurs engagés

Although they didn’t unseat fiction or history, science books and magazines

– ranging from technical manuals enabling workers to improve their professional skills to books by famous popularizers, like Figuier – do appear on the list of items requested several times a day.

Brochure for the Magasin Pittoresque (Picturesque Magazine), 1863.


Portrait of Édouard Charton, Truchelut & Valkman, 1883.