By Justin Livingstone
In mid-April, members of the Livingstone Online team descended on Lincoln, Nebraska, home of project director Adrian Wisnicki. The occasion for our meeting was the annual conference of the Nineteenth Century Studies Association (NCSA), which was being hosted by Adrian’s institution, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
(View a rich selection of pictures from our meeting on our Flickr account.)
Our project team is internationally distributed – with scholars in South Africa, the United Kingdom and various parts of the United States – and so it’s not often that many of us are gathered in one place. When Adrian suggested putting together a conference panel on Livingstone, the opportunity seemed too good to miss.
I arrived in Nebraska late on the evening of Tuesday, April 12. After three flights to get from Belfast to Lincoln, I was a rather jet-lagged traveller when I met up with Adrian and Jared McDonald (Livingstone Online Project Scholar and Lead Contact for South African Research) on the following morning. Coming from universities in South Africa and the UK, Jared and I were keen to experience the American classroom and so had volunteered to participate in Adrian’s undergraduate class, “Being Human in the Digital Age.”
The course examines the ways in which the radical technological developments of the past two centuries have transformed our interactions with the world and raised fundamental questions about what it means to be human. Despite the fatigue, we had an engaging discussion with an enthusiastic group of students on the ethics of privacy and public information in the digital world.
The rest of the day was spent exploring Lincoln and the University and discussing our work. This was the first time Jared and I had met in person, in spite of the fact that we had both been working closely with Adrian on Livingstone Online initiatives over the past few years. In a way, the first day set the tone for a trip that would give us real opportunity to build relationships and exchange ideas, not only in project meetings but in social settings and many conversations.
Over the next few days, I would also meet other team members: the project’s aesthetic designer Angela Aliff (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) and research assistants Mary Borgo (Indiana University) and Erin Cheatham (University of Nebraska). I also met James Mussell (University of Leeds), who was the conference’s keynote speaker, but who has also been a significant friend to Livingstone Online and was honorary guest at all project activities.
Although in some instances I had corresponded with team members by email or spoken via Skype/Google Hangouts, it was a pleasure to finally encounter these colleagues face to face. I had the chance to hear more about the particular facets of the project in which they are involved and their important contributions to the development of Livingstone Online.
As well as bringing us together for a few days, the conference gave us the chance to share our project with an audience interested in Victorian studies and the digital humanities. Our conference panel – inevitably entitled, “Papers on Dr Livingstone, I Presume?” – consisted of talks by Adrian, Jared, Mary, and myself.
Adrian opened the session with an overview of the project from its origins as a Wellcome Trust funded initiative to its current incarnation supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. For those in the audience with an interest in managing digital projects, the paper offered a journey behind-the-scenes into the objectives and practices of Livingstone Online (such as data collection methods, collaborative partnerships, and so on) via the story of one image from the project.
Next up, Jared spoke on James Read, a controversial missionary and advocate of indigenous rights who spent over fifty years in southern Africa. Engaging contemporary debates about missionary policy and anxieties about “going native,” Jared provided insight into the complex history of the London Missionary Society in South Africa in the period immediately preceding Livingstone’s arrival.
Mary’s paper took up the subject of the “magic lantern,” a new and highly interactive technology of religious communication in the nineteenth century. Drawing on her experience of transcribing for Livingstone Online, she also offered thoughts on TEI (Text Encoding Initiative) tagging as a reading tool: markup in XML entails making interpretive decisions about how to handle data and can be used to address both particular textual details and recurring patterns.
My paper emerged from my own project for Livingstone Online, a digital edition of Livingstone’s major work, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857). I argued that digital editing permits the inclusion of a wider range of archival materials than is possible in print and so can offer a new kind of encounter with texts. High quality images and digital tools can also lay emphasis on the conditions of writing and the materiality of archival documents.
Our panel wasn’t the only Livingstone Online related event at NCSA. Erin contributed to a “Nineteenth-century Studies Digital Humanities” poster session, which showcased both the Livingstone Enrichment and Access Project (LEAP) and the Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project. Likewise, Adrian presented at a session on “Getting Started in the Digital Humanities,” in which he shared his experience of beginning a career in the field. In fact, the conference had a lot to offer for digital humanists. James Mussell’s keynote address on nineteenth-century advertising, for instance, raised questions about the way in which digitisation is transforming our encounter with the archive.
On Monday, April 18, following the conference, we met together for a “Livingstone Online Retreat” during which Adrian introduced us to some recent LO developments. We looked at new XSLT transformations of XML transcriptions and experimented by processing some of our files.
During an online meeting with Livingstone Online developers, we were also given a sneak preview of progress on the project website – including a look at the online manuscript viewer, currently under development. For those of us not directly involved in this aspect of the project, it was exciting to have a glimpse into web features soon to be released.
Throughout the day, we had another couple of meetings. Jessica Dussault, a member of UNL’s Center for Digital Research in the Humanities, provided us with training in Github, a version control system already being used in some aspects of Livingstone Online development.
We also met on Skype with a group of high school students from Wheaton, Missouri working on David Livingstone. Together, our team answered questions on his ideas, motivation, and legacy while also encouraging the students to think about Livingstone in the context of European colonialism and African history. This was one of a number of conversations that Livingstone Online members have had over the past few months with American high school students, who are preparing projects for this year’s National History Day contest on “Exploration, Encounter, Exchange.”
Following a visit to the international headquarters of Livingstone Online – a.k.a. Adrian’s office – we finished our retreat with a much needed caffeine boost at the Coffee House, a favourite local haunt. This gave us the chance to learn more about one another’s projects – Angela’s plans for outreach initiatives, Mary’s interest in mapping technologies, and Jared’s edition of Livingstone’s South African letters.
In the midst of the foregoing conference and meeting schedule, we also had time to watch a game of the Huskers (UNL’s football team), visit the Capitol building in Lincoln, the Natural History Museum on the university campus, and braai (the South African term for “barbeque”) on more than one occasion at Adrian’s house.
We also took a day trip to the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park, a drive-through wildlife reserve half way between Lincoln and Omaha. Since Livingstone was an enthusiastic observer of the natural world, we followed in his footsteps by setting out on our own safari…!
These informal occasions gave us the chance to talk, to pass ideas back and forth, and to consider future projects that might take our shared work in new directions. Livingstone Online is built on interaction and collaboration, and our meeting in Lincoln was a valuable team building experience that only heightened our enthusiasm for the project.