Archive Watch: The Words of David Livingstone in Living Color

For more than two years, scholars and imaging scientists have been using advanced scanning techniques to recover the mostly illegible contents of an 1871 field diary kept by the British explorer David Livingstone in Africa. Low on paper and ink, the explorer had resorted to writing on newspaper sheets, with ink made from berries, and over time the original document had become almost impossible to read.

The “Livingstone’s 1871 Field Diary Project” team illuminated the diary with different wavelengths of light—from blue to infrared—creating 6 or 8 different images for each page. That allowed team members to separate or fade out different features—the newspaper text, for instance—and pull out almost all of Livingstone’s handwriting. “I would say we had a 99 percent success rate,” says Adrian S. Wisnicki, the project’s director and lead scholar.

Now the team has unveiled an online “multispectral critical edition” with images, transcriptions, and relevant notes, making Livingstone’s first-person account accessible again. They’ve also created a “Livingstone Spectral Images Archive” to give anyone who wants it direct access to the images, transcriptions, and metadata the project has created, no strings attached. Almost everything in both the edition and the archive comes with a Creative Commons license that allows the contents to be reused with attribution.

The diary doesn’t shake Livingstone’s image but complicates it, Mr. Wisnicki says. It presents the unvarnished version of events that the explorer and his editors sometimes revised in later published accounts. Victorians depicted the explorer as “this saintly abolitionist crusader,”the scholar says. “The findings coming out of the diary have cast him in a more human light.”

In July 1871, Livingstone was stuck in a Congolese village called Nyangwe, trying to negotiate the use of canoes to continue his search for the source of the Nile. He had the misfortune to still be there on July 15, the day hundreds of Nyangwe’s villagers were massacred by Arab slave traders. A horrified Livingstone recorded the slaughter in the field diary he kept on his travels:

“…the murderers are on the other side plundering and shooting—It is awful–terrible—a dreadful world this = as I write shot after shot falls on the fugitives on the other side who are wailing loudly over those they know are already slain = Oh let thy kingdom come … women threw away their produce and scrambled for dear life—men left their paddles in dread as the merciless fire was rained upon them by other men who must [have] been cognisant of the plan of Murder The women soon sank into their watery graves … ”

Reworked versions of what Livingstone witnessed turn up in a later diary and in a letter. “It was slaughter on a scale that Livingstone had never seen,” Mr. Wisnicki says. “He didn’t know how to react. He made some mistakes in the way he handled things” and later changed some details “to make him look better,” the scholar says.

The critical edition presents the transcriptions and spectral images along with interpretive background material. Those who just want the data can consult the Livingston spectral-images archive. “You can look at the data as mediated by our critical edition, or you can take the raw data and do whatever you want to do with it yourself,” says Mr. Wisnicki, an assistant professor of English and co-director of the Center for Digital Humanities and Culture at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. “People haven’t really imagined everything that can be done with this data”–200 to 250 gigabytes’ worth, he estimates.

The recovery of the diary has truly been a collaborative effort. “A lot of people gave a lot of time pro bono to the project,” Mr. Wisnicki says. Three imaging scientists led the multispectral imaging work that pulled Livingstone’s words out of obscurity: Bill Christens-Barry of Equipoise Imaging, Roger L. Easton Jr. of the Rochester Institute of Technology, and Keith Knox, an independent imaging consultant based in Hawaii.

The Livingstone project also relied on institutional support, both financial and in-kind. The University of California at Los Angeles’s digital-library program volunteered to serve as the project’s publisher. The National Endowment for the Humanities contributed $50,000, with the British Academy supplying a smaller amount. The team worked closely with the National Library of Scotland and the David Livingstone Centre, both home to substantial amounts of Livingstone material.

The next challenge is getting scholarly journals to take note of the work. The idea of reviewing a digital critical edition “is a really new concept to a lot of scholars,” Mr. Wisnicki says. He’s had expressions of interest from at least three journals in relevant fields, including the Journal of Victorian Culture, African Research & Documentation, and Postcolonial Text.

It helps that the online edition was designed to accommodate users with different levels of technological skill. “If you want to go through the Web site in a traditional page-by-page way, you can do that,” Mr. Wisnicki explains. The spectral-image archive is aimed more at librarians and conservators and scholars who know how to handle metadata.

Working so intensely on this kind of digital scholarly project has gotten Mr. Wisnicki focused on the long-term sustainability of digital data. “I’m always thinking about how the data can be separated from the interface,” Mr. Wisnicki says. “You obviously want to present your critical interpretation, but you also want to present your data so that people don’t have to go through you.”

Along with the diary pages and critical apparatus, the Livingstone diary site features another striking element: a detailed history of the work that went into it at every stage. That section includes about 60 downloadable documents, a narrative history, and photos of different elements and stages.

“We wanted to establish a model and let people learn from our mistakes,” Mr. Wisnicki says. For instance, the team went with a file-naming system that tried to pack too much sourcing information into each entry. That decision “caused us a lot of trouble down the road,” he says. Documenting that process of trial and error might save other researchers time and headaches. “We want to facilitate the scholarly study of spectral data,” Mr. Wisnicki says.

[Images: a page from David Livingstone's 1871 field diary in its original form (top left) and as revealed by spectral imaging (right), provided by the "Livingstone's 1871 Field Diary" project.]

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