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Categorizing Historical Documents: What is a Red Book?

Module by: David Getman, Paula Sanders. E-mail the authors

Summary: This module is a guide to the process of identifying what type of work you are researching and using that information to expand the potential of different research projects. You will be introduced to the process of categorizing the works you find in your research, locating similar and divergent works and using them in concert to contextualize the "Egyptian Red Book," a satire of the British government Sudan policy included in the Travelers in the Middle East Archive.

Figure 1
Figure 1 (redbooks.png)

Introduction: Decoding Historic Documents

When you're doing historical research, you often encounter documents that are difficult to categorize. Without knowing more about such works, it's difficult to advance a knowledgeable argument about them. For instance, the Egyptian Red Book" (1885), a satire that is part of the Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA), reveals little about itself directly. It includes no author, introduction, table of contents, statement of purpose or even references to the figures represented in the text and the images. Few of the cartoons have named figures or artists. The pamphlet presents itself to the reader like the political cartoons it contains: an overt message with very little background, a visual sermon to the converted with little consideration for those outside the know. If you would like a synopsis of the story addressed in the Red Book you may skip to our sketch of the historical events.

In order to understand both the intended and historical meaning of the text and the images, it is important to find out what sort of work the "Egyptian Red Book" is. We will use the following questions to guide our research:

Defining Key Terms: "Red Book"

Often the first clue to a document's significance is its title. To begin, then, we should define what is meant by "Red Book". What is the significance of "Red" here--why not blue or green? The adjective "Egyptian" indicates that the work focuses on a particular country, but it's not clear how. Time to head to the library to find more information! We will use online reference materials to begin our sleuthing. For the purposes of demonstration, we will describe how to conduct this research using Fondren Library's resources, but a similar process will work at most other research libraries.

From the Fondren home page select the Collections option and then the Online Reference Sources option that appears next to it.

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Then select General Reference at the top of the screen.
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Figure 3 (red11.bmp)
You will find a list of online dictionaries and encyclopedias here to choose from. By selecting and entering red book we are offered this definition:
Figure 4
Figure 4 (red12.bmp)
This resource is great for a quick reference, but it is important to understand its limitations. Any two dictionaries published within a few years of each other will probably provide you with similar, but not identical, definitions for a common word. The meanings of words change over time, however. The best way to observe the way English words change and the importance of identifying not only how, but when the word you're investigating was used is by looking it up in The Oxford English Dictionary.

The Oxford English Dictionary is not only a guide to the meaning, history, and pronunciation of over half a million English words, both present and past, it is the definitive reference source for the meaning and pronunciation of any word in the English language. It traces the usage of words through quotations from a wide range of international English language sources. For example, "Red Book" is defined as "a book bound in red" in terms of today's usage. However, its usage has varied from a collection of all the "composicions" of the "chauntry preestis" in 1479 to "a Witche's red Book, a Catalogue of such as have sealed to the Devil with their own bloud, la rouge liste" by 1688. By the time of the publication of "The Egyptian Red Book," in the late nineteenth century, the term seems to have referred to a book containing the names of all persons holding office under the State or receiving pensions from it.

As we shall see, "The Egyptian Red Book" addresses the work of government officials. It also condemns those actions, holding the officials responsible for the death of a General in the British army. We can see the possibility that the term has held onto some of its previous meanings: the condemnatory list of individuals that have exchanged their free will for power, an account of the works of particular authorities, and a list of individuals in the service of the State, in this case those involved with British policy toward Egypt. As we continue with our investigation of this work, other explanations for the title will present themselves, all of which must be considered in our research.

Categorizing the work you are researching

Nearly every work shelved in every library around the world is categorized in relation to other works in terms of its content. This is done according to a system of subject headings established by the Library of Congress that describe the content of the work, such as Athletics or History. Subheadings then further specialize the relation of the work to others, such as Swimming or Britain, 1800-1900. By locating our work within this system of categorization, we not only discover what sort of work it is considered to be, we also gain access to other titles that are similar to it. This can be of great advantage in any research project.


WorldCat is a system designed to help you to browse the collections of over 16,000 libraries world wide. You can also order the books you find on WorldCat from other libraries through Interlibrary loan if they are not available at your library. Here we will use WorldCat to locate our work for the purpose of defining exactly what sort of work the "Red Book" is in terms of the way libraries categorize it around the world. For a more extensive tutorial, visit our WorldCat module.

You can either use, which can be accessed at, or the full version of WorldCat, which is available to subscribers, such as your university library. is free, but provides fewer features than the full version of WorldCat. Please note that in order for the link to the full version to work, your institution must have a subscription and you must either be on campus or be connected via a VPN or proxy server. Different libraries organize their materials differently, of course. If you were to look for the link to WorldCat from the Fondren home page, you would click on "Catalog," then select "Other Library Catalogs" and look for "WorldCat."

Once you're in WorldCat, type the title into the text box provided and then select Title in the pulldown menu.

The second search result looks like our work.

Figure 5
Figure 5 (red2.bmp)
Select the blue title link and you will be taken to the full entry.
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Figure 6 (red3.bmp)
This cataloging record provides information about who published the work, when it was published, and in what language. Significantly, it omits the name of the author, which is typically available. The description field tells us about the physical nature of the volume--that it has 28 numbered pages, 2 [unnumbered] pages, and 2 pages of plates, that it is illustrated, and that it measures 17 by 20 centimeters. We are given the call number in both the Library of Congress (LC) and Dewey Decimal systems. Note also that you are able to order a copy of this work through interlibrary loan.
Figure 7
Figure 7 (red4.bmp)
For more information on this process, visit our Interlibrary loan module.

The information we are most interested in for now we find under the heading Subject(s).

Figure 8
Figure 8 (red5.bmp)
Political satire, cartoons, caricature, Britain, Egypt and government sound about right. Let's see what other works WorldCat describes in this way. Select the descriptor beginning with Great Britain.

The list is relatively short, only twenty-five entries. The second descriptor beginning with Egypt is reserved solely for "The Egyptian Red Book" so we are dealing with a manageable number of works. For now, let's just mark all of these entries and email them to yourself so we will have them for later stages in the project.

Scroll down to the bottom of the page until you see the Mark all option.

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Figure 9 (red6.bmp)
Once you select this option you will notice check marks in the boxes to the left of each entry on the page.
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Figure 10 (red7.bmp)
This means they are selected. Move on the the next page and then the next repeating this process until every box is checked and then select the email option.
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Figure 11 (red9.bmp)
Enter in the information requested. Select the "Detailed records" and "Send as plain text options" and then press send. Your entry should look like this.
Figure 12
Figure 12 (red8.bmp)
You will receive an email at the address that you entered with all of the entries; select all of the text, copy it and then paste it onto a Word or text file. These will come in handy later on in the project. If you have a bibliographic program such as EndNote, you could instead select the "Export" option and pull the data into that program.

Note that our list makes several mentions of "Punch" and "The Westminster Gazette," which area nineteenth-century periodicals. These publications are included in our list under a dated subject heading; thus we can be confident that they were in publication at the same time as our work. When we look for similar works in the collection at the library in the next section, we should be sure to explore their periodicals as well as books on our subject.

Limits of Finding Works by Subject Headings

It is interesting to note here that one very similar work does not appear in our list of works that share a subject heading with the "Egyptian Red Book." It is a work that we discussed in our "Identifying the Characters of the Egyptian Red Book Module" entitled "The Irish Green Book." It is important to note this here for a few reasons. First, this valuable resource for our research would have remained undiscovered if we had not explored a variety of options, rather than simply one or two. Second, this kind of oversight is indicative of the limitations of a system that attempts to categorize works by general subject. It is important that we develop an understanding of the limitations of our techniques and resources so that we may overcome them. Let's locate the Irish Green Book on WorldCat and compare the subject headings.

For the Irish Green Book and

Figure 13
Figure 13 (gb1.png)
for the Egyptian Red Book
Figure 14
Figure 14 (gbb1.png)
What do you see? They are actually very similar collections of keywords, but not similar enough to produce the two books in the same subject heading list. Let's take a closer look at the Irish Green Book and see for ourselves how similar they are.
Figure 15
Figure 15 (gb2.png)
The style of the cartoons seems similar to the Egyptian Red Book and the publisher is the same. The format of publication is also very similar in size, materials, and number of pages.
Figure 16: "THE IRISH GREEN BOOK." By the author and joint-compiler of the "Egyptian Red Book," "Diary of the Gladstone Government," &c.
Figure 16 (gb3.png)
The cover page tells us that the author of the "Egyptian Red Book" and the "Irish Green Book" are the same, although his or her name is not given.
Figure 17
Figure 17 (gb4.png)
And we do not have to look very far to see the familiar use of pithy quotes and verbal caricatures,
Figure 18
Figure 18 (gb5.png)
as well as the illustrated variety.
Figure 19
Figure 19 (gb6.png)

In relation to our original question, "What is a Red Book?," now we can add, "What is a Green Book?." Considering the association of the color green with Ireland we must ask ourselves about the color red and its relationship with Egypt. We do not have to look very far to discover that the Egyptian flag is indeed red and that red is the color internationally associated with the Ottoman Empire, which is historically to Egypt by politics and religion. The relationship between England and the regions that are the subject of our two books, Ireland and Egypt, is a comparative subject that these works only hint at in a humorous way. There is room here for serious academic study, however, as a more thorough examination of the history of the three countries would reveal. Now let's go on to the location of more similar works in the library.

Finding similar works

Here we will be looking for material related to "The Egyptian Red Book." We could hope to find information on political cartoons in Britain in the late nineteenth century, other works of political satire, other cartoons that depict the characters in our work, and anything else that we can immediately get in hand to further our project in whatever direction our findings take us. We are primarily interested at this point in locating other primary sources, meaning original documents such as other works of political satire from the same period.

Library Catalog

At most libraries, the days of the card catalog are long gone; instead, patrons search web-based catalogs such as WebCat, the online catalog at Fondren Library. WebCat and similar tools offer a variety of search options to assist you in sifting through the variety of materials available to find the exact item you are looking for. For a more in depth tutorial on online catalogs, visit our WebCat module.

Pull up the web page for the catalog; at most libraries, it is available immediately from the home page. Enter the subject heading--"Political satire, English" into the textbox. Select the Subject option so that you are searching for other works with the same subject term.

We find 53 results, none of which pertain, exactly, to our period. However, by looking closely at the entries we see that political cartoons seem to have been prevalent all the way back to the middle of the eighteenth century.

Figure 20
Figure 20 (red14.bmp)
A more recent publication tells us that they remain so throughout the twentieth century.
Figure 21
Figure 21 (red15.bmp)
Here we could begin collecting a bibliography on the political cartoon in Great Britain. However, we have two leads to primary sources in the form of periodicals to explore: "Punch" and "The Westminster Gazette."

Periodical Search

Let's return to the basic search page and enter the title of our periodical into the text box and select the Periodical option. We do not find any copies of the Westminster Gazette in the catalog (we might find it at another library), but Fondren does list Punch in its collection.

Select the record and scroll down to the location listings. Notice that Vol. 1 begins in 1841.

Figure 22
Figure 22 (red17.bmp)
Also notice that Vol. 1-103 are in storage. In order to take a look we will have to order them to be brought to us.

First we have to figure out which volumes we need. We're looking for information about Gen. Charles Gordon, the protagonist of he "Egyptian Red Book," from around the time that the satire was published in 1885. (See Getting the Whole Story From "The Egyptian Red Book": General Charles Gordon in Khartoum for more information.) If Vol. 1 came out in 1841 and Vol. 218 came out in 1966, then we might assume that Vol. 100 would fall around 1900. If we have around 200 volumes over about 120 years, with a little division and subtraction we can place the 1880's somewhere in the 70-80 volume range. Let's order volumes 75-95 and have a look. We are going to need the call number title and publication year, so make a note of these. At Fondren, as at most other libraries, you can request items from storage through a web interface; here we will select the User Services option at the top of the page.

Figure 23
Figure 23 (red18.bmp)
Then select the REQUEST ITEM FROM STORAGE OR THE LSC option and fill in the required identification information.

You will notice that we are required to provide both the volume numbers and the years of publication. Because these are not provided for us we will enter the approximate volume numbers for the years we want and explain the possible discrepancy in the text box provided next to the word Notes.

Another way to find information in nineteenth century periodicals is to use an index such as 19th Century Masterfile (your institution needs to be a subscriber for you to search this resource). Unfortunately, Punch is not one of the journals indexed by this research tool, but many other sources--including the Times of London and the New York Times--are.


Figure 24
Figure 24 (punch001.png)
The first issue of Punch was published on July 17, 1841, and the last in 1992. The magazine was meant to present quality humor without the prevailing bitterness of contemporary publications while aspiring to a higher literary standard. This balance of humor and literary quality is said to have been described in its preliminary stages as being like a good punch mixture and the name stuck. As you have seen in the above search, Fondren Library holds hundreds of issues of Punch. Let's take a look at the ones that pertain to our period.

Our calculations placed our period in a volume somewhere in the 70's to 80's range and upon inspection we find it in volume 88-89.

Figure 25
Figure 25 (punch003.png)
As we browse Punch, we quickly discover what appears be a cartoon of Gen. Gordon having dismounted his camel and greeting a local official (indicated by his fez headgear and his curved sword) before a cheering army.
Figure 26: "At Last!" Punch. Volume 88 (February 7, 1885): 67. From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA). Accessed October 5, 2006.
Figure 26 (punch007.png)

Comparing Punch to The Egyptian Red Book

The Egyptian Red Book is, as you know, a collection of quotes from debates in Parliament and cartoons that express criticism of the British Government. Punch takes a different attitude toward its audience. It is important to note the differences between the two if we wish to know exactly what kind of works we are dealing with, what the intentions of their authors might have been and how the works may have impacted the attitudes of their intended audiences.

In the issue dated February 14, 1885, we find a poem and cartoon expressing profound sadness at Gordon's demise.

Figure 27: "Too Late!" Punch. Volume 88 (February 14, 1885): 78-81. From Travelers in the Middle East Archive (TIMEA) Accessed October 5, 2006.
Figure 27 (punch015.png)
The accompanying poem laments Gordon's fate. It begins: "Too late! Too late! Loud through the desert sounds / That piteous cry, and to the farthest bounds / Of England's Empire echoes. There she stands, / BRITANNIA, stricken 'midst the Libyan sands/ With bitter disappointment's venomed dart, / Wrath in her soul and anguish at her heart." For a complete transcription, please see the electronic edition of "Too Late!" in TIMEA.

By locating and reviewing the pages of a contemporary periodical we have broadened our understanding of the popular views of the events in the Sudan. We can now compare Punch with the Egyptian Red Book in our project to specify exactly what the Red Book is. By this we mean not only its style or presentation of the information, but also the political leanings of its authors, the demographic and political perspectives of its intended audience, and the possible purpose and goals of the publication in the existing political climate.

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