Posted by: stackedfivehigh | July 6, 2010

Finding history through science

There are two interesting news stories showing the value of new archival preservation techniques, specifically spectral imaging. Spectral imaging, if you didn’t know, has a couple variations which the nice people at the Early Manuscripts Electronic Library summarized in discussing the first news story of today:

There are two levels of spectral imaging: hyperspectral and multispectral. With hyperspectral imaging, an object is exposed to a broad range of very narrow wavelengths across the UV, visible and IR portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Multispectral imaging (the technique applied to Livingstone’s manuscripts) only exposes the object to a set of predetermined wavelengths in this portion of the spectrum.

So, Dr. Livingstone (of “I presume” fame) had written a letter to a colleague 140 years ago, but having run out of paper and ink was using ink made from local berries and was writing over newspapers and other letters.  The ink has faded over time, and was illegible.  Using multispectral imagining, researchers were able to decipher his correspondence.  His attempt to find the source of the Nile River failed, but the survival of this record is surely valuable to a greater understanding of African history and that of colonialism and missionary work.

The other interesting story of the day is solving the mystery of Thomas Jefferson’s smudge in the Declaration of Independence.  There’s been quite a bit of speculation about this – it’s the only time in the document where a word wasn’t just crossed out, or similarly still legible.  Instead, Jefferson smudged the initial word out and wrote over it, changing ‘subjects’ to ‘citizens’, and altered our political system forever more.  The Library of Congress is pretty excited about it, and I can’t blame them.

On the subject of my projects – I spent Friday afternoon doing a little preservation – by which I mean there are 5 files, which each contained 20 stacks of papers.  Each stack of papers was about 50 pages.  Every 2 papers were stapled together.  I don’t mind, I’m just surprised there were so many there, and it’s not what I had thought I was going to be working on.  I am going to try to stay on the finding aid this week, I’d like to try to finish it up.


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