The Library of Congress Digitizes Over 16,000 Pages of Letters & Speeches from the Women’s Suffrage Movement, and You Can Help Transcribe Them

“Democracy may not exist,” Astra Taylor declares in the title of her new book, “but we’ll miss it when it’s gone.” This inherent paradox, she argues, is not fatal, but a tension with which each era’s democratic movements must wrestle, in messy struggles against inevitable opposition. “Perfect democracy… may not in fact exist and never will, but that doesn’t mean we can’t make progress toward it, or that what there is of it can’t disappear.”

Taylor is upfront about “democracy’s dark history, from slavery and colonialism to facilitating the emergence of fascism.” But she is equally celebratory of its successes—moments when those who were denied rights marshaled every means at their disposal, from lobbying campaigns to confrontational direct action, to win the vote and better the lives of millions. For all its imperfections, the women’s suffrage movement of the 19th and early 20th century did just that.

It did so—even before electronic mass communication systems—by building international activist networks and forming national associations that took highly-visible action for decades until the 19th Amendment passed in 1920. We can learn how this all came about from the sources themselves, through the “letters, speeches, newspaper articles, personal diaries, and other materials from famed suffragists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.”

So reports Mental Floss, describing the Library of Congress’ digital collection of suffragist papers, which includes dozens of famous and less famous activist voices. In one example of both international cooperation and international tension, Carrie Chapman Catt, Anthony’s successor (see a published excerpt of one of her speeches below), describes her experience at the Congress of the International Woman Suffrage Alliance in Rome. “A more unpromising place for a Congress I never saw,” she wrote, dismayed. Maybe despite herself she reveals that the differences might have been cultural: “The Italian women could not comprehend our disapproval.”

The fractious, often disappointing, relationships between the larger international women’s suffrage movement, the African American women’s suffrage movement, and mostly male Civil Rights leaders in the U.S. are represented by the diaries. letters, notebooks, and speeches of Mary Church Terrell, “a founder of the National Association of Colored Women. These documents shed light on minorities’ laborious suffrage struggles and her own dealings with Civil Rights figures like W.E.B. Du Bois." (Terrell became an activist in 1892 and lived to fight against Jim Crow segregation in the early 1950s.)

The collection includes “some 16,000 historic papers related to the women’s rights movement alone.” All of them have been digitally scanned, and if you’re eager to dig into this formidable archive, you’re in luck. The Library of Congress is asking for help transcribing so that everyone can read these primary sources of democratic history. So far, reports Smithsonian, over 4200 documents have been transcribed, as part of a larger, crowdsourced project called By the People, which has previously transcribed papers from Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, and others.

Rather than focusing on an individual, this project is inclusive of what is arguably the main engine of democracy: large-scale social movements—paradoxically the most democratic means of claiming individual rights. Enter the impressive digital collection “Suffrage: Women Fight for the Vote” here, and, if you’re moved by civic duty or scholarly curiosity, sign up to transcribe.

via Mental Floss

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness.

The Jane Austen Fiction Manuscript Archive Is Online: Explore Handwritten Drafts of Persuasion, The Watsons & More

I first came to Jane Austen prepared to dislike her, reared as I had been to think of good fiction as socially transgressive, experimental, full of heavy, life-or-death moral conflicts and existentialist anti-heroes; of extremes of dread and sorrow or alienated extremes of their lack. Austen’s characters seemed too perky and perfect, too circumscribed and wholesome, too untroubled by inner despair or outer calamity to offer much in the way of interest or example.

This is an opinion shared by more perceptive readers than myself, including Charlotte Brontë, who called Pride and Prejudice “an accurate daguerreotype portrait of a commonplace face.” Brontë “disliked [Austen] exceedingly,” writes author Mary Stolz in an introduction to Emma. The author of Jane Eyre pronounced that "Miss Austen is only shrewd and observant," where a novelist like George Sand is "sagacious and profound."

A cursory reading of Austen can seem to confirm Brontë’s faint praise. Consider the first description of her heroine matchmaker, Emma:

Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence, and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.

No great, shocking disasters befall Emma. She is buffeted neither by war nor poverty, crime, disease, oppression or any other essentially dramatic conflict. She ends the novel joining hands in marriage with charming gentleman farmer Mr. Knightly, content, maybe ever-after, in “perfect happiness.”

Rarely if ever in Austen do we find the torments, spiritual strivings, sublime and grotesque imaginings, proto-science-fiction, and world-historical consciousness of contemporaries like William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, or Mary Shelley. Austen is “famous,” writes Stolz, “for having lived through the period of the French Revolution without ever mentioning it in her writings.”

To see this as a critique, however, is to seriously misjudge her. “She did not deal in revolutions of this order. Not a traveled woman, she wrote only of what she knew”: life in English country villages, the travails of “love and money,” as she put it, the everyday longings, courtesies, and discourtesies that make up the majority of our everyday lives.

We can see Austen doing just that in her own hand at the Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition. A collection of scanned manuscripts from the Bodleian, British Library, Pierpont Morgan Library, private collectors, and King’s College, Cambridge, this project “represents every stage of her writing career and a variety of physical states: working drafts, fair copies, and handwritten publications for private circulation.”

This is primarily a resource for scholars; much of this work has been published in printed editions, including the Juvenilia (read some of that writing here) and unfinished drafts like The Watsons and her last, uncompleted, novel, Sanditon. (One still-in-print 1975 edition collects the three unfinished novels found at the digital collection). Each digital edition of the manuscript includes a head note on the textual history, provenance, and physical structure, as well as a transcription of the text. There is also an option to view a "diplomatic edition" that transcribes the text with all of Austen's corrections and additions.

Yet any Austen fan will appreciate seeing her witty, incisive style change and take shape in her own neat script. In an age of superheroes, historical and fantasy epics, and dystopian fantasies, we are beset by “the big Bow-Wow strain,” as Walter Scott self-effacingly called his own novels. In Austen’s writing, we find what Scott described as an “exquisite touch which renders commonplace things and characters interesting from the truth of the description and the sentiment.” She wraps her truths in wicked irony and a satirical voice, but they are truths we recognize as wise and compassionate in her domestic dramas and our own.

Austen knew well that her settings and characters were limited. She made no apologies for it and clearly needn’t have. “Three or four families in a country village,” she wrote to her niece Anna, “is the very thing to work on.” She also knew well the universal tendencies that blind us to the variety found within the everyday, whether our everyday is a sleepy country village life or a tech-laden, 21st-century city.

She almost seems to sigh wearily in Emma when she observes, “human nature is so well disposed toward those who are in interesting situations” … so much so that we fail to notice what’s going on all around us all the time. She wrote neither for money nor fame, and her work wasn’t even published with her name until after her death in July 1817, but she has since become fiercely beloved for the very qualities Brontë disparaged.

Austen didn’t miss a thing, which makes her novels as canny and insightful (and big-screen and fan-fiction adaptable) as when they were first written over two-hundred years ago. Enter the Jane Austen's Fiction Manuscripts Digital Edition here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Washington, DC. Follow him at @jdmagness

In 1886, the US Government Commissioned 7,500 Watercolor Paintings of Every Known Fruit in the World: Download Them in High Resolution

T.S. Eliot asks in the opening stanzas of his Choruses from the Rock, “where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” The passage has been called a pointed question for our time, in which we seem to have lost the ability to learn, to make meaningful connections and contextualize events. They fly by us at superhuman speeds; credible sources are buried between spurious links. Truth and falsehood blur beyond distinction.

But there is another feature of the 21st century too-often unremarked upon, one only made possible by the rapid spread of information technology. Vast digital archives of primary sources open up to ordinary users, archives once only available to historians, promising the possibility, at least, of a far more egalitarian spread of both information and knowledge.

Those archives include the USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection, “over 7,500 paintings, drawings, and wax models commissioned by the USDA between 1886 and 1942,” notes Chloe Olewitz at Morsel. The word “pomology,” “the science and practice of growing fruit,” first appeared in 1818, and the degree to which people depended on fruit trees and fruit stores made it a distinctively popular science, as was so much agriculture at the time.

But pomology was growing from a domestic science into an industrial one, adopted by “farmers across the United States,” writes Olewitz, who “worked with the USDA to set up orchards to serve emerging markets” as “the country’s most prolific fruit-producing regions began to take shape.” Central to the government agency’s growing pomological agenda was the recording of all the various types of fruit being cultivated, hybridized, inspected, and sold from both inside the U.S. and all over the world.

Prior to and even long after photography could do the job, that meant employing the talents of around 65 American artists to “document the thousands and thousands of varieties of heirloom and experimental fruit cultivars sprouting up nationwide.” The USDA made the full collection public after Electronic Frontier Foundation activist Parker Higgins submitted a Freedom of Information Act request in 2015.

Higgins saw the project as an example of “the way free speech issues intersect with questions of copyright and public domain,” as he put it. Historical government-issued fruit watercolors might not seem like the obvious place to start, but they’re as good a place as any. He stumbled on the collection while either randomly collecting information or acquiring knowledge, depending on how you look at it, “challenging himself to discover one new cool public domain thing every day for a month.”

It turned out that access to the USDA images was limited, “with high resolution versions hidden behind a largely untouched paywall.” After investing $300,000, they had made $600 in fees in five years, a losing proposition that would better serve the public, the scholarly community, and those working in-between if it became freely available.

You can explore the entirety of this tantalizing collection of fruit watercolors, ranging in quality from the workmanlike to the near sublime, and from unsung artists like James Marion Shull, who sketched the Cuban pineapple above, Ellen Isham Schutt, who brings us the Aegle marmelos, commonly called “bael” in India, further up, and Deborah Griscom Passmore, whose 1899 Malus domesticus, at the top, describes a U.S. pomological archetype.

It’s easy to see how Higgins could become engrossed in this collection. Its utilitarian purpose belies its simple beauty, and with 3,800 images of apples alone, one could get lost taking in the visual nuances—according to some very prolific naturalist artists—of just one fruit alone. Higgins, of course, created a Twitter bot to send out random images from the archive, an interesting distraction and also, for people inclined to seek it out, a lure to the full USDA Pomological Watercolor Collection.

At what point does an exploration of these images tip from information into knowledge? It's hard to say, but it’s unlikely we would pursue either one if that pursuit didn’t also include its share of pleasure. Enter the USDA's Pomological Watercolor Collection here to new and download over 7,500 high-resolution digital images like those above.

via Morsel.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

A Complete Digitization of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Codex Atlanticus, the Largest Existing Collection of His Drawings & Writings

No historical figure better fits the definition of “Renaissance man” than Leonardo da Vinci, but that term has become so overused as to become misleading. We use it to express mild surprise that one person could use both their left and right hemispheres equally well. But in Leonardo’s day, people did not think of themselves having two brains, and the worlds of art and science were not so far apart as they are now.

That Leonardo was able to combine fine arts and fine engineering may not have been overly surprising to his contemporaries, though he was an extraordinarily brilliant example of the phenomenon. The more we learn about him, the more we see how closely related the two pursuits were in his mind.

He approached everything he did as a technician. The uncanny effects he achieved in painting were the result, as in so much Renaissance art, of mathematical precision, careful study, and firsthand observation.

His artistic projects were also experiments. Some of them failed, as most experiments do, and some he abandoned, as he did so many scientific projects. No matter what, he never undertook anything, whether mechanical, anatomical, or artistic, without careful planning and design, as his copious notebooks testify. As more and more of those notebooks have become available online, both Renaissance scholars and laypeople alike have learned considerably more about how Leonardo’s mind worked.

First, there was the Codex Arundel, digitized by the British Library and made freely available. It is, writes Jonathan Jones at The Guardian, “the living record of a universal mind”—but also, specifically, the mind of a “technophile.” Then, the Victoria and Albert National Art Library announced the digitization of Codex Forster, which contains some of Leonardo’s earliest notebooks. Now The Visual Agency has released a complete digitization of Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus, a huge collection of the artist, engineer, and inventor’s finely-illustrated notes.

(Note: If you speak English, make sure you click the "EN" button at the bottom right hand corner of the site. Also see "How to Read" at the top of the site.)

“No other collection counts more original papers written by Leonardo,” notes Google. The Codex Atlanticus “consists of 1119 papers, most of them drawn or written on both sides.” Its name has “nothing to do with the Atlantic Ocean, or with some esoteric, mysterious content hidden in its pages.” The 12-volume collection acquired its title because the drawings and writings were bound with the same sized paper that was used for making atlases. Gathered in the 16th century by sculptor Pompeo Leoni, the papers descended from Leonardo’s close student Giovan Francesco Melzi, who was entrusted with them after his teacher’s death.

The history of the Codex itself makes for a fascinating narrative, much of which you can learn at Google’s Ten Key Facts slideshow. The notebooks span Leonardo’s career, from 1478, when he was “still working in his native Tuscany, to 1519, when he died in France.” The collection was taken from Milan by Napoleon and brought to France, where it remained in the Louvre until 1815, when the Congress of Vienna ruled that all artworks stolen by the former Emperor be returned. (The emissary tasked with returning the Codex could not decipher Leonardo’s mirror writing and took it for Chinese.)

The Codex contains not only engineering diagrams, anatomy studies, and artistic sketches, but also fables written by Leonardo, inspired by Florentine literature. And it features Leonardo’s famed “CV,” a letter he wrote to the Duke of Milan describing in nine points his qualifications for the post of military engineer. In point four, he writes, “I still have very convenient bombing methods that are easy to transport; they launch stones and similar such in a tempest full of smoke to frighten the enemy, causing great damage and confusion.”

As if in illustration, elsewhere in the Codex, the drawing above appears, “one of the most celebrated” of the collection." It was “shown to traveling foreigners visiting the Ambrosiana [the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan, where the Codex resides] since the 18th century, usually arousing much amazement.” It is still amazing, especially if we consider the possibility that its artistry might have been something of a byproduct for its creator, whose primary motivation seems to have been solving technical problems—in the most elegant ways imaginable.

See the complete digitization of Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus here. And again, click "EN" for English at the bottom of the site, and then "How to Read" at the top of the site.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

700 Years of Persian Manuscripts Now Digitized and Available Online

Too often those in power lump thousands of years of Middle Eastern religion and culture into monolithic entities to be feared or persecuted. But at least one government institution is doing exactly the opposite. For Nowruz, the Persian New Year, the Library of Congress has released a digital collection of its rare Persian-language manuscripts, an archive spanning 700 years. This free resource opens windows on diverse religious, national, linguistic, and cultural traditions, most, but not all, Islamic, yet all different from each other in complex and striking ways.

“We nowadays are programmed to think Persia equates with Iran, but when you look at this it is a multiregional collection,” says a Library specialist in its African and Middle Eastern Division, Hirad Dinavari. “Many contributed to it. Some were Indian, some were Turkic, Central Asian.” The “deep, cosmopolitan archive,” as Atlas Obscura’s Jonathan Carey writes, consists of a relatively small number of manuscripts—only 155. That may not seem particularly significant given the enormity of some other online collections.

But its quality and variety mark it as especially valuable, representative of much larger bodies of work in the arts, sciences, religion, and philosophy, dating back to the 13th century and spanning regions from India to Central Asia and the Caucuses, “in addition to the native Persian speaking lands of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan,” the LoC notes.

Prominently represented are works like the epic poem of pre-Islamic Persia, the Shahnamah, “likened to the Iliad or the Odyssey,” writes Carey, as well as “written accounts of the life of Shah Jahan, the 17th-century Mughal emperor who oversaw construction of the Taj Mahal.”

The Library points out the archive includes the “most beloved poems of the Persian poets Saadi, Hafez, Rumi and Jami, along with the works of the poet Nizami Ganjavi.” Some readers might be surprised at the pictorial opulence of so many Islamic texts, with their colorful, stylized battle scenes and groupings of human figures.

Islamic art is typically thought of as iconoclastic, but as in Christian Europe and North America, certain sects have fought others over this interpretation (including over depictions of the Prophet Mohammad). This is not to say that the iconoclasts deserve less attention. Much medieval and early modern Islamic art uses intricate patterns, designs, and calligraphy while scrupulously avoiding likenesses of humans and animals. It is deeply moving in its own way, rigorously detailed and passionately executed, full of mathematical and aesthetic ideas about shape, proportion, color, and line that have inspired artists around the world for centuries.

The page from a lavishly illuminated Qurʼān, above, circa 1708, offers such an example, written in Arabic with an interlinear Persian translation. There are religious texts from other faiths, like the Psalms in Hebrew with Persian translation, there are scientific texts and maps: the Rare Persian-Language Manuscript Collection covers a lot of historical ground, as has Persian language and culture “from the 10th century to the present,” the Library writes. Such a rich tradition deserves careful study and appreciation. Begin an education in Persian manuscript history here.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Venice Time Machine: 1,000 Years of Venice’s History Gets Digitally Preserved with Artificial Intelligence and Big Data

Along with hundreds of other seaside cities, island towns, and entire islands, historic Venice, the floating city, may soon sink beneath the waves if sea levels continue their rapid rise. The city is slowly tilting to the East and has seen historic floods inundate over 70 percent of its palazzo- and basilica-lined streets. But should such tragic losses come to pass, we’ll still have Venice, or a digital version of it, at least—one that aggregates 1,000 years of art, architecture, and "mundane paperwork about shops and businesses" to create a virtual time machine. An “ambitious project to digitize 10 centuries of the Venetian state’s archives,” the Venice Time Machine uses the latest in “deep learning” technology for historical reconstructions that won’t get washed away.

The Venice Time Machine doesn’t only proof against future calamity. It also sets machines to a task no living human has yet to undertake. Most of the huge collection at the State Archives “has never been read by modern historians,” points out the narrator of the Nature video at the top.

This endeavor stands apart from other digital humanities projects, Alison Abbott writes at Nature, “because of its ambitious scale and the new technologies it hopes to use: from state-of-the-art scanners that could even read unopened books, to adaptable algorithms that will turn handwritten documents into digital, searchable text.”

In addition to posterity, the beneficiaries of this effort include historians, economists, and epidemiologists, “eager to access the written records left by tens of thousands of ordinary citizens.” Lorraine Daston, director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin describes the anticipation scholars feel in particularly vivid terms: “We are in a state of electrified excitement about the possibilities,” she says, “I am practically salivating.” Project head Frédéric Kaplan, a Professor of Digital Humanities at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), compares the archival collection to “’dark matter’—documents that hardly anyone has studied before.”

Using big data and AI to reconstruct the history of Venice in virtual form will not only make the study of that history a far less hermetic affair; it might also “reshape scholars’ understanding of the past,” Abbott points out, by democratizing narratives and enabling “historians to reconstruct the lives of hundreds of thousands of ordinary people—artisans and shopkeepers, envoys and traders.” The Time Machine’s site touts this development as a “social network of the middle ages,” able to “bring back the past as a common resource for the future.” The comparison might be unfortunate in some respects. Social networks, like cable networks, and like most historical narratives, have become dominated by famous names.

By contrast, the Time Machine model—which could soon lead to AI-created virtual Amsterdam and Paris time machines—promises a more street-level view, and one, moreover, that can engage the public in ways sealed and cloistered artifacts cannot. “We historians were baptized with the dust of archives,” says Daston. “The future may be different.” The future of Venice, in real life, might be uncertain. But thanks to the Venice Time Machine, its past is poised take on thriving new life. See previews of the Time Machine in the videos further up, learn more about the project here, and see Kaplan explain the “information time machine” in his TED talk above.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

New Archive Digitizes 80,000 Historic Watercolor Paintings, the Medium Through Which We Documented the World Before Photography

The watercolor painting has a reputation for lightness. It’s a casual endeavor, done in scenic outdoor surroundings on sunlit days. Watercolors are the choice of weekend hobbyists or children unready for messier materials. Watercolors, in other words, are often treated as unserious. But for a couple hundred years, they served a very serious purpose. In addition to being a portable medium with an expansive range, watercolors’ ease made them the primary means of making documentary images before photography completely took over this function by the turn of the 20th century when portable consumer cameras became a reality.

“Before the invention of the camera,” explains the Watercolour World, “people used watercolors to document the world. Over the centuries, painters—both professional and amateur—created hundreds of thousands of images recording life as they witnessed it. Every one of these paintings has a story to tell.”

The Watercolour World is a large-scale digitization of thousands of watercolors found hidden away in drawers all over the UK by former diplomat Fred Hohler, who came up with the idea for the project while on a tour of Britain’s public collections.

“The value—and excitement—of the Watercolour World project,” writes Dale Berning Sawa at The Guardian, "is that it views these historic paintings as documents, not aesthetic objects.” That’s not necessarily how their creators’ saw them. “A lot of the value in these images is… accidental. Often it’s the context—replete with treelines, snowlines or waterlines—the artist painted around, for example, the flower they’d set out to record.” Such accidental documentation captured one of the first known images of Mount Everest, situated in the background, in a painting from the 1840s. Of course much of the documentary purpose was intentional—in land surveys and scientific illustrations, and in the many paintings, like that above from 1833, of Mount Vesuvius erupting.

These images are becoming increasingly important to scientists and historians as ice-caps melt, historical sites are bombed or vandalized, and flora and fauna disappear. With a focus on pre-1900 images, the site launched with around 80,000 digitized watercolors, a number that could expand into over a million, Hohler estimates, at which point, it will become an “absolutely indispensable tool to help us understand today.” As for understanding the context in which these works were created—it’s complicated. Many of the paintings come with a wealth of identifying information. Some of the artists were professionals, some military draftsmen, botanists, expedition watercolorists, and surveyors.

Some had long, distinguished careers taking over other countries, like colonial British General James Maurice Primrose, who painted several very impressive landscapes in India like 1860’s “In the Neilgherries,” above. And there are also “untold numbers of amateurs,” Sawa writes, “which Hohler suspects will turn out to have been mostly women, unpaid for their time and skill—who picked up a paintbrush to record the world around them.” Whoever these painters were, and whatever motivated them to make these works of art, we can be grateful that they did, and that these thousands of paintings, many of which are quite fragile, survived long enough for digitization in this impressive public project.

“By making history more visible to more people,” the Watercolour World puts it, “we can deepen our understanding of the world.” The UK-based organization seeks paintings from around the globe; “there are thousands of watercolours still to add.” If you have some pre-1900 works to contribute, you are encouraged to get in touch and find out if they’re suitable for inclusion. Enter the Watercolour World here.

via The Guardian

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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