Spectral Scanning Reveals 19th-Century Diary's Secrets
First editions of books and records often become collectors' items later, but what happens to an all-online first edition? That's a question for the future of David Livingstone's 1871 Field Diary, whose restorers announced their first edition in April. Livingstone was an explorer and abolitionist from Scotland – and the subject of the greeting, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" The handwriting in his 1871 diary had long faded to near-invisibility, until researchers in the U.K. and the U.S. used spectral imaging to bring his words back to life. The researchers were the first people to read the diary since the 19th century.
The diary was first published as a beta release in November 2011. The April first edition is revised, includes more material and has more functions in its online interface, according to the project website. Most of the material is published under a Creative Commons license that lets people republish it as long as they don't profit from it and they give credit to the original restoring team.
Livingstone was a Scottish missionary to Africa who witnessed slavers massacring people in the village of Nyangwe in July 1871. His descriptions of the event, which horrified him, led British officials to shut down an important slave market in Zanzibar.
Just a few days before he first reached Nyangwe, however, he ran out of ink and paper and so improvised by folding up a newspaper and writing across it with "ink" made of berry seeds and juice. The juice didn't stand up well over time. Instead, people learned about Nyangwe from Livingstone's later diaries and letters, which didn't capture his immediate reactions to the atrocity.
To read the faded diary, researchers scanned each page several times, using different wavelengths of light. Under certain wavelengths, the newspaper print appeared to fade away, allowing researchers to recover most of Livingstone's handwriting.
Wisnicki and his team arranged for the server power needed to host the scans, plus typed transcriptions and other data, for free online. After the beta release, the team worked on improving the online interface and saving the diary in a standard, downloadable file format so other researchers can analyze the contents for themselves.
The restoration of the Livingstone's 1871 diary has complicated historians' view of the explorer and missionary, Wisnicki told several news outlets. For example, Livingstone was a staunch abolitionist, but in his diary, he writes about being repulsed by the men he freed, the Associated Press reported. He found them immoral and was afraid they would go on a murderous rampage if he weren't there. He kept those details out of his later accounts.
As for the famous salutation, it occurred in October 1871. The New York Herald had sent journalist Henry Stanley to find out what happened to Livingstone, who hadn't been heard from in two years. When Stanley first saw Livingstone, he greeted and presumed, then resupplied Livingstone with regular ink and paper.