Editor’s Insight: Democracy in America with Alan Keely

4 MIN READ

With our February 2022 Content Release, we added the Tocqueville Review to both our Democracy in America database and our Law Journal Library. Therefore, we thought it would be the perfect time to highlight our Democracy in America interactive resource, as well as to ask Alan Keely, the database’s editor, to provide some insight into this unique and comprehensive tool.

In 1831, two Frenchmen, Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, arrived in New York City with a commission from the French Government to study American prisons and penitentiaries. Under this pretext of official business, the life-long friends spent the next nine months traveling throughout the young United States, studying the effects of democracy on American society. In 1835, de Tocqueville published the first volume of his masterwork, Democracy in America.

HeinOnline is proud to have partnered with Keely, recently retired Associate Director for Collection Services at Wake Forest Law Library with a background in history, literature, and bibliography, to showcase a new and exciting version of de Tocqueville’s classic work. Upon reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Keely imagined that linking the source material which Tocqueville had used or cited when writing his book could add another dimension to the experience of reading the classic.

photo of Alan Keely
Alan Keely discussing Democracy in America at the 2019 AALL Conference.

Meticulously researched by Keely, with more than 1,100 annotations and references, HeinOnline’s interactive digital edition takes researchers back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s 1831, providing full-text links to the works Tocqueville read while he traveled, researched, and wrote Democracy in America. Keely’s annotations provide insight into Tocqueville’s thinking, grounding the work within the context in which it was written. What’s more, alongside the interactive edition, the database contains a growing library of more than 250 scholarly articles that provide perspectives and insight into Tocqueville’s work. And with HeinOnline’s February 2022 content release, the database contains the entire run of the Tocqueville Review—an essential journal for anyone interested in research on Tocqueville and Democracy.

screenshot of Democracy in America database

What inspired you to create this resource?

Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville is one of those books that is on almost every reading list of great books. Having only read portions of the book, I finally read it over the summer of 2017 given the political environment of the time. The book resonated with me but raised many questions. For example, are Tocqueville’s ideas applicable in the 21st century?    

As I read the book and considered the questions it raised, it occurred to me that Democracy in America would make an excellent HeinOnline database—a library where the user could easily navigate from the Tocqueville text to the myriad resources he had used. The library could also include selections from the significant body of scholarship scattered in books and journals. With all of this available in one place, such a library could be extremely beneficial to scholars, researchers, and students.  

What is the importance of this database?     

As James Schleifer in his Chicago Companion to Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, wrote:

Understanding Tocqueville’s book is never straightforward. Tocqueville’s striking ability to appeal to readers across a wide spectrum of opinion and outlook is one reason for the enduring attraction of his work… Democracy is now read less for what he praised about the United States than for what he warned democratic society against. Today, Tocqueville’s portrait of America is seen through a much darker lens.

Is our nation to continue as a democracy or devolve into an autocracy? Are we truly condemned to repeat the mistakes of our past? Was Tocqueville a visionary for his warnings regarding the darker side of democracy?

Given the present state of our politics, many scholars and researchers of Tocqueville’s masterpiece may look for insights in his prescient warnings about democratic societies. While the initial focus of the library was on the creation of the digital interactive edition with links to the source material, it quickly became much more. After consulting numerous editions and translations, it became evident that many of the notes added by various scholars and editors could be very useful in trying to understand Tocqueville’s ideas. Hence, what has been created is a “composite” edition with citations to many editorial notes from the various editions and sources. In addition, the library includes Tocqueville research in the form of articles from journals and books and chapters of books cited in various Tocqueville bibliographies. Much of this material is scattered across the information landscape and is, in some cases, extremely difficult to locate. The Democracy in America database brings together these resources under the umbrella of a single platform.         

What went into creating this interactive resource?

Democracy in America was created as a means of presenting to the reader a digital interactive edition of the text with links to the source materials cited by Tocqueville and to notes in various other editions. Countless hours were spent developing a list of more than 1,100 resources that Tocqueville either consulted or cited along with finding electronic versions of those works. In addition, a list was created of more than 1,700 analytical entries from the actual text to the various resources. These serve as the basis for the links in the interactive edition and include citations, extensive textual notes, page navigation information, and background notes.  

screenshot of subcollections in Democracy in America database

To implement the vision of how the product should work, a triple-window approach was adopted that would work within the overall framework of HeinOnline. The left window for display of the table of contents, notes, page navigation data, etc.; the middle window for the display of the image of the digital interactive edition including highlighted words and phrases in the text that serve as links; and the right window for the display of the supplementary resource.

After two years of work, the product was released to users in August 2019. To date, there have been two updates to the library with a third update in preparation. With the interactive edition available, the next step would be to expand the range of scholarship available in the library. 

What is the significance of expanding the database to include the Tocqueville Review?

The research and scholarship surrounding Tocqueville and Democracy in America is quite extensive and continues to grow. 

In researching the scholarship for the Democracy in America database, citations to one journal kept reappearing—the Tocqueville Review—the journal of the Tocqueville Society. The journal’s website describes the Tocqueville Review as:

…a French-American bilingual journal devoted to the comparative study of social change, primarily in Europe and the United States, but also covering major developments in other parts of the world, in the spirit of Alexis de Tocqueville’s pioneer investigations. A journal of social science, the Review publishes essays on current affairs, history, and political philosophy; it also features a regular section on Tocquevillean studies.

Some of the members of the Tocqueville Society, including Arthur Goldhammer and Olivier Zunz, are the preeminent scholars on Tocqueville, his writings, and on Democracy. The journal itself is a publication of the Center for Critical Democracy Studies at the American University in Paris.


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