Report on our Swiss Guestbooks Research Day

Thirteen researchers and experts on the history of travel from various Swiss institutions and from farther afield participated in our first research colloquium on Swiss guestbooks at the University of Neuchâtel on 4 September. These included our guest speaker, Kevin James from the University of Guelph, Canada ; Evelyne Lüthi-Graf, director of the Swiss Hotel Archives ; Daniela Vaj, research director at the Digital Humanities Lab of the University of Lausanne ; Rafael Matos-Wasem, professor of geography at the HES-SO in Sierre ; Jon Mathieu, Ursula Batz, and Andreas Bürgi from the University of Lucerne ; and Laurent Tissot, Mattia della Corte, Sarah Pflug, Anne-Claire Michoux, Benjamin Zumwald and Patrick Vincent from the University of Neuchâtel.

Thanks in particular to Kevin James, the colloquium was extremely productive. Kevin gave a much-appreciated lecture entitled «The Guest Book as Historical Source » that not only set the parameters for the day’s discussion, but also inspired participants to pursue their research of guest books. Drawing on a rich archive, Kevin’s talk focused on the textual rather than numerical applications of guestbook scholarship, building on the contributions of historical geography to contextualize these artifacts as an historical record using the tools of book history and of literary analysis. Questions he sought to answer include what it meant to be a guest inscribing in and reading a guestbook, how these books produced and shaped nineteenth-century culture, how contemporaries handled the books as vital cultural objects, and what differences existed if any in the performance of guestbook writing across time and space.

A number of important insights and questions relevant to the Swiss guestbook project emerged from Kevin’s presentation and from the ensuing discussion. Above all, it confirmed the fact that guest books were not a uniquely British practice, and that Switzerland was very often associated by British writers with visitor book culture. Unlike in Britain, however, where travelers were not obliged to register their names until 1914, the Swiss cantons introduced registration laws in the early nineteenth century (6 February 1843 in Vaud, for example) that regimented travelers’ acts of inscription. Whereas guest books emerged out of the 18th century as a relatively free space of inscription, registers were introduced in the 19th century because of new legal regimes of surveillance. This difference may help explain the lower density of guest books versus registers in Switzerland, and the fact that those we have found are often in peripheral areas rather than in the main cities.

In the afternoon, Andreas Bürgi presented a livre d’or from 1877 to 1878 that he discovered during his research on Lucerne’s Gletschergarten. Among other things, these revealed an important gap (1/4) between the number of people who visited the museum per year, and the number who entered their names, a reminder that guestbooks may not always be reliable statistical tools. Mattia della Corte then gave a synthetic review of his work in the last six months, using the example of Jemima Morrell’s 1863 itinerary, along which only one out of twelve tourist establishments have survived, to show the difficulty of the task. Focusing on French-speaking Switzerland, Mattia contacted sixty-five hotels and inns that survived from the nineteenth century : thirty-two of these have no records, and among the fifteen that do, most of these are recent. Mattia usefully established a typology of guestbooks based on his findings : 1. Registers filled by the hotels ; 2. Registers combined with livres d’or ; 3. Livres d’or in which the client only signs his name ; and 4. Livres d’or in which the guest is invited to also write comments.

Among other points discussed was the practicability and usefulness of digitization, especially with transcription and coding. Participants agreed that the research project needed to be developed and gradually carried over to all the linguistic regions of Switzerland. If a number of challenges lie ahead, notably in terms of funding, we emerged from the colloquium energized and eager to forge ahead with the project.

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