OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

Scottish explorer David Livingstone’s writings, drawings now available through online archive

06/24/2015

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Students, researchers and the public will have extraordinary access to the drawings, letters and field diaries of Scottish explorer David Livingstone through an expanded digital archive and new website that is launching today.

The site, Livingstone Online, www.livingstoneonline.org, is the digital home for the documents chronicling the life and work of Livingstone, a missionary, physician and abolitionist best known for his travels in Africa in the mid-19th century.

“The original Livingstone documents are scattered all over the world – in Africa, Scotland, England and in private collections,” said Megan Ward, an assistant professor at Oregon State University and associate director of the Livingstone Online project. “There’s never been a single physical location for these documents. We wanted to come up with a more comprehensive archive.”

The project, directed by Adrian S. Wisnicki, assistant professor of English at the University of Nebraska, is being funded by a three-year, $265,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The website for the digital archive is being hosted by the University of California, Los Angeles.

Livingstone’s work provides insight into globalization, imperialism and the role of the British Empire and life in Africa during that period. Many of the themes prevalent in Livingstone’s work continue to resonate today, said Ward, who teaches and researches Victorian literature. Livingstone is an icon of the era, she said – his work inspired questions of empire throughout the literature of that time.

“He was seen as a great hero then, though the lens of time changes people’s perspective of him and his work,” said Ward, who teaches in the School of Writing, Literature and Film in OSU’s College of Liberal Arts. “He 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.” 

The online archive was established in 2005 then dramatically expanded through a two-year, international collaboration among scholars, digital librarians, museum curators and others across the U.S., Scotland, England and South Africa. The beta version of the new, expanded site is being unveiled this week.

More than 7,500 original images of Livingstone’s writings can be found on the site and the archive is expected to expand to more than 12,000 images by 2016. The archive also includes drawings and illustrations depicting Livingstone’s work and findings.

Wisnicki and Ward have received another, $168,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant so they can use spectral imaging and processing technology to study one of Livingstone’s diaries in new ways.

“He ran out of paper and ink at one point and was writing on newspapers using ink made from local clothing dye,” Ward said.

Over time, the paper became fragile and the writing all but disappeared. The spectral imaging technology allows researchers to see the words that once were there. One illegible diary has already been restored using the technology.

The new grant will allow researchers to more closely examine a second, companion diary that is more legible. Researchers hope to use the spectral imaging technology to reveal other aspects of its history, such as how and when it was written, when pages were added and in what order the pages were assembled. That could provide further understanding of where and how Livingstone documented conflicts between Arab slave traders and the central African people, Ward said. 

The archive of Livingston’s work will serve as a resource for academic researchers as well as for students from elementary school through college. One section of the site contains outreach materials geared to students ages 9-13. Making the site compatible for use with mobile devices, including tablets and smart phones, is in future plans as well, Ward said.

“The digital images give these historical documents new life and make them available to a wider audience,” Ward said. “You can see flies that were smashed in notebooks, funny sketches, even drops of blood.”

To commemorate the launch of the new Livingstone Online site, Wisnicki and Ward are speaking this week at the British Library and the National Library of Scotland.

College of Liberal Arts

About the OSU College of Liberal Arts: The College of Liberal Arts includes the fine and performing arts, humanities and social sciences, making it one of the largest and most diverse colleges at OSU. The college's research and instructional faculty members contribute to the education of all university students and provide national and international leadership, creativity and scholarship in their academic disciplines.