One Giant LEAP for Livingstone in Washington, D.C.

by Angela Aliff
(Indiana University of Pennsylvania)

I look back with fondness at these few moments, when we gently and reverently opened the bound book pages containing some Livingstone manuscripts….

Heather Ball gently examines an original Livingstone manuscript from the Russell E. Train Africana Collection at the Cullman Library.
Heather Ball gently examines an original Livingstone manuscript from the Russell E. Train Africana Collection at the Cullman Library.

Of course, viewing any Livingstone manuscript firsthand is an experience to savor. But this was no ordinary manuscript reading, nor was it an ordinary day.

The plan: NEH Chief Information Officer Brett Bobley had arranged for a lunchtime talk featuring a grant update on LEAP, The Livingstone Online Enrichment and Access Project. NEH staff were invited to attend. For this presentation, we assembled a team of four speakers: Adrian Wisnicki as project director, Mike Toth as project manager, Heather Ball as project scholar, and me, the aesthetic visionary. (Even though I personally think the phrase “aesthetic visionary” smacks of clairvoyance, it’s otherwise a nifty title Adrian invented to summarize my smattering of LEAP jobs, including photography and website design.) After the presentation, we had an appointment to view the Russell E. Train Africana Collection in hopes of finding a letter written by David Livingstone. Lastly, Adrian and Mike were to offer an evening seminar at the Smithsonian.

Just before the LEAP update, Mike Toth and Adrian Wisnicki spend a few moments thanking NEH Chief Information Officer Brett Bobley for his efforts in organizing the talk.
Just before the LEAP update, Mike Toth (far left) and Adrian Wisnicki (far right) spend a few moments thanking NEH Chief Information Officer Brett Bobley (center) for his efforts in organizing the talk.

And now for the play-by-play. Hang in there. You won’t believe it’s all one day if you don’t pay attention closely.

12:00 p.m.  Although none of us had actually met to discuss our portions of the NEH presentation in person, the talk transitioned seamlessly from one speaker to the next, and by the end we realized that our teamwork truly had represented the heart of our project (and the subject of our talk): Collaboration to the Core. Our efforts received positive feedback from the NEH staff, many of whom reiterated their enjoyment of the energy that comes from the project. I believe that our efforts to build friendships with each other outside of LEAP have produced that energy: we love working together!

Angela Aliff describes the process of collaborative web design to NEH staff.
Angela Aliff describes the process of collaborative web design to NEH staff.

2:15 p.m. After a quick lunch, we headed towards the National Mall for some “behind the scenes” photos of the LEAP team at work. Of course, when I say “behind the scenes” in this case, what I really mean is that we carefully positioned ourselves in front of the most interesting D.C. backdrops we could find to talk about Livingstone and our shared project.

Heather Ball and Adrian Wisnicki spend a few moments discussing Livingstone in front of a provocative wall at the Hirshhorn Museum.
Heather Ball and Adrian Wisnicki spend a few moments discussing Livingstone in front of a provocative wall at the Hirshhorn Museum.

Go ahead, tell me it’s not profound to talk about Livingstone with Belief + Doubt literally looming behind us.

3:30 p.m. We walked up the steps of the Joseph F. Cullman, 3rd Library of Natural History just in time to meet Kirsten van der Veen, our fabulous Special Collections guide into the archives. After we checked in, Kirsten handed us not one but five bound books that contained original letters written by David Livingstone. And for the next several minutes, we slowly turned each page, admiring creases and smudges formed nearly two hundred years ago.

But it gets better. We searched the digital record for the first letter we opened. To the Reverend W. Fairbrother. From Kolobeng, Bakwain Country. 9 August 1847…. Nothing. The letter had not been previously catalogued by Livingstone scholars. That’s right: the first manuscript we opened was a previously documented (and so unknown) letter. As far as we could tell, at this point we were the only three Livingstone scholars who knew that this letter existed.

And it still gets better. Some of the bound books contained multiple manuscripts. After we finished taking notes on the stack, Kirsten gave us several more folders of Livingstone papers that Daria Wingreen-Mason, Smithsonian Rare Books Technical Information Specialist, had prepared in advance for our perusal. Altogether, we found five undocumented letters, ten letters with previously unknown locations, and several other items of particular interest including a handful of original pictures of Livingstone. Kirsten volunteered to work late so we could spend every last moment photographing the items and recording recipients, locations, dates, measurements, and shelf marks.

In spite of the typical tedium of double checking data, Heather Ball and Angela Aliff enthusiastically record notes on a Livingstone manuscript.
In spite of the typical tedium of double checking data, Heather Ball and Angela Aliff enthusiastically record notes on a Livingstone manuscript.

5:30 p.m. We had to leave the Cullman Library and search for food. We had exactly half an hour before check in at the Ripley Center for the Smithsonian seminar, Dr. Livingstone’s Lost Diary. Gulping down take out as we piled into a taxi, we arrived only a few minutes late, still breathless with our recent discoveries.

6:45 p.m. Minutes before the seminar began, Adrian and I confirmed the count of our manuscript discoveries. At the end of two incredible hours that weaved together Mike’s insights into spectral imaging technology and Adrian’s insights into Livingstone’s writings as one grand narrative of the entire Livingstone project history, Adrian amazed the audience with the revelation that our many partnerships with other wonderful institutions were, we hoped, about to expand to include the Smithsonian Libraries and the impressive batch of new documents that we’d encountered just that afternoon.

Adrian Wisnicki captivates his Smithsonian seminar audience with recent discoveries about the larger-than-life Livingstone.
Adrian Wisnicki captivates the Smithsonian seminar audience with recent discoveries about the larger-than-life Livingstone.

9:00 p.m. Exhausted and exhilarated, we finally paused for a group photo, promptly followed by a well-deserved celebratory dinner and drinks.

LEAP colleagues Angela Aliff, Mike Toth, Adrian Wisnicki, and Heather Ball.
LEAP colleagues Angela Aliff, Mike Toth, Adrian Wisnicki, and Heather Ball.
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