A Lost Diary, Revealed

“You can see flies that were smashed in notebooks, funny sketches, even drops of blood” in the field notes of Victorian-era explorer David Livingstone newly available online, says Oregon State University historian Megan Ward.


September 3, 2015

Livingstone Hand Drawn Map
During David Livingstone’s explorations in Africa, he drew maps and jotted notes in detailed field diaries. (Image courtesy of Livingstone Online.)

DURING A LONG AND ARDUOUS JOURNEY through Central Africa, Scottish explorer David Livingstone became ill and was stranded for months. Livingstone, a 19th-century missionary, physician and abolitionist, was a faithful diarist, keeping careful field notes and sketching images from his travels. When his supplies ran out, he made ink from local clothing dye and began scribbling his notes on old newspapers or other scraps of paper.

Those words, from improvised materials, were not to last.

The makeshift pages from 1870 and 1871 became fragile and the writing all but disappeared, keeping some of Livingstone’s thoughts and discoveries hidden for decades.

Or, at least, until now.

Megan Ward, an assistant professor in the School of Writing, Literature and Film, is one of the leaders of a worldwide digital humanities project that is using spectral imaging and processing technology to reveal some of Livingstone’s long-concealed words and to make thousands of pages of the explorer’s notes and sketches easily available online to students, researchers and the public around the world.

“Livingstone left a complicated legacy. Due to his work to end the slave trade, he has been considered a freedom fighter for Africa, but his exploration also has been viewed as detrimental to Africa and its people,” says Ward, who is the associate director of the Livingstone Online archive project.

Of Human Bondage

In his writing, Livingstone documented the effects of European imperialism and colonialism, African history, the 19th-century slave trade and the diverse cultures and geography of Africa, issues that still resonate today. In some cases, Livingstone’s notes and sketches are the only source of information about the continent and the time period, but since his death in 1871, his papers have been scattered all over the world, in Africa, Scotland, England and in private collections.

“There’s never been a single physical location for these documents. We wanted to come up with a more comprehensive archive,” Ward says.

That was the genesis for Livingstone Online, www.livingstoneonline.org, an international collaboration of scholars, digital librarians, museum creators and others across the United States, Scotland, England and South Africa. The online archive was first established in 2005 and was dramatically expanded with the aid of a $265,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The beta version of the new, expanded site was launched in June.

The archive includes thousands of pages of Livingstone’s field notes, sketches and other writing, as well as images of Livingstone’s work that was thought to be lost – spectral imaging and processing technology has allowed researchers to see what once was written on the pages.

“The digital images give these historical documents new life and make them available to a wider audience,” says Ward, a Victorian-era scholar who joined the OSU faculty in 2014. “You can see flies that were smashed in notebooks, funny sketches, even drops of blood.”

Digital History

Ward’s interest in Victorian-era technologies such as the phonograph and the “difference engine,” an automated mechanical calculator, sparked in her a realization that current technologies might also be a way to think about the past. “I’m surprised to find myself involved in the digital humanities,” she says. “I began to see that technology is more than just a tool, and that opened up a whole new world for me. I’m really interested in creating a digital archive, which through its creation, offers new information. It’s not just a repository but a resource for new discovery.”

Ward began researching Victorian-era digital humanities projects and connected with Adrian Wisnicki, an assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska and the leader of the Livingstone Online project. Ward was a good fit for the project because of her background in Victorian literature, where themes of empire are common — themes often inspired by Livingstone and other explorers of the era.

Livingstone Diary in Color
These pages from Livingstone’s 1871 field diary have been spectrally imaged to improve readability. (Image courtesy of Livingstone Online.)

She helped Wisnicki write the initial grant to expand and re-launch the Livingstone archive. They have since received a second, $168,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant to use spectral imaging technology on another Livingstone diary, which could provide further understanding of where and how Livingstone documented conflicts between Arab slave traders and the central African people, Ward says.

In June, Wisnicki and Ward traveled to the United Kingdom to speak at the British Library and the National Library of Scotland as part of the celebration to mark the launch of the new Livingstone Online website. Ward also had an opportunity to see some of Livingstone’s original writings and diaries up close.

“When I handled the original Livingstone diaries after working exclusively with the digital images for the past two years, I realized how powerful these idiosyncratic objects from the past become,” Ward says. “The diaries are ephemeral objects that were never really meant to be saved. Livingstone made his field diaries with the intention of writing scientific papers and book-length publications from them. But because he died before they were published – and because he was a Victorian hero – they’ve been preserved. So now we look at these diaries as authoritative accounts of African abolition and imperial exploration, but it’s an accident that we have them at all. Livingstone Online continues this preservation but also tries to emphasize the varied history of this legacy.”

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