Website Review

Livingstone Online

University of Maryland Libraries

The product of a multi-institution collaboration, Livingstone Online is in its own words a “digital museum and library” where users can “encounter the written, visual, and material legacies” of David Livingstone. While the site is primarily dedicated to digitising the famed British explorer’s works, Livingstone Online is far more than a mere repository of primary sources. Digitised manuscripts aside, the site also contains numerous well-written essays on Livingstone and the contexts he operated in, resources related to the site’s contents, as well as a deep dive into how the entire project was set up.

To begin with, the About this Site section provides a comprehensive overview of the project. While most sites might be content to populate their ‘About’ section with a few explanatory paragraphs, the Livingstone Online team have instead crafted essays that address the background and purpose of this project. Most of these specifically address the project itself via topics such as its theoretical objectives, design and development, intended audiences, and overall project histories. The project histories in particular are incredibly fascinating as in the interest of increasing knowledge-share and public transparency, the team has not only closely narrated how the site was developed, but actually made their project documents available for download as well. In a time where academic processes still remain a mystery to most people and many research teams tend to keep their proverbial cards close to their chests, having this kind of access is nothing short of remarkable – not to mention incredibly useful for readers intending to embark on their own digital humanities projects. These aside, the remaining essays are more broad in nature, addressing issues such as the history of documenting Livingstone’s manuscripts, why his work remains an important source, and the importance of digital libraries. Read alongside each other, these essays offers a fantastic introduction to Livingstone Online, its subject matter, and the intellectual landscape it occupies.

Most of the actual digitised content on the site is spread across two sections. The first, In His Own Words, has the lion’s share of manuscript images, transcriptions, and critical essays, while Spectral Imaging hosts a selection of Livingstone’s works that have recently been made accessible via advanced imaging technology.

In the former, users have a choice of either exploring a number of critical editions (i.e. Livingstone’s Missionary Travels Manuscript (1857), Final Manuscripts (1865-1873), and Manuscripts in South Africa (1843-1872)) or browsing the collection (which also includes images of material items) according to a number of different parameters. Of particular interest here will be the ability to browse according to a timeline, or even location via a digital map. These search parameters can be adjusted further on the main search page, with the usual options being available. Notable additions are the ability to search according to original repository, as well as genre. Meanwhile, users who prefer to work offline will be glad to find that most images can be downloaded as archival packets. A complete set of reading (i.e. transcribed) copies of individual items can similarly be downloaded as a .zip file of PDFs.

With regards to the critical editions, the team has done a truly exceptional job. Each edition comes with its own table of contents, allowing users to navigate to prefatory materials (e.g. introductions, edition guides, and project teams), images and texts of the manuscript(s) in question, critical essays, and supporting materials (e.g. bibliographies, project histories). The actual images and transcriptions are thus bookended by content that contextualises each manuscript, engages critically with it, and provides further information on the processes behind its digitisation. Opening up the document viewer, users will find that each manuscript page image is accompanied by a critically encoded and edited transcription. For manuscripts with multiple editions, users also have the option of viewing editions alongside each other for easy comparative study.

This style of presenting content is replicated in the Spectral Imaging section. What sets this section apart, however, is the fact that the manuscripts here (a selection of Livingstone’s works from 1870-1871) have been processed via spectral imaging – a type of cutting edge imaging technology that reveals text that might not have otherwise been visible to the naked eye. These multispectral critical editions aside, other subsections of interest include notes on processed spectral images and an integrated project bibliography of the multidisciplinary sources required for the spectral imaging project

In the Life and Times section, the Livingstone Online team have uploaded a collection of critical essays that explore the various contexts Livingstone lived and published in, as well as the complexity of his legacy. These essays are written in an academic fashion and meticulously cited, though the language is still very accessible and will be of interest to anyone who would like to have a more comprehensive overview of Livingstone’s world. Complementing the About this Site section is Behind the Scenes, which provides a more granular look at the staff and institutions behind this project. While most users might gloss over what is largely an acknowledgements, permissions, and credits section, it remains valuable as reminder of just how much effort goes into a project like this. The Livingstone Online Code, in particular, is also worth highlighting as it sets out a number of key elements that all digital humanities projects should aspire to.

Last but not least is the Resources section, which provides additional teaching and learning materials. While it is a slight pity that the Livingstone Online Outreach Program only contains worksheets aimed at students aged 9-13, educators will no doubt be able to easily create their own lesson plans based off the array of information available on the site. High school classes might for instance trace the evolution of Livingstone’s legacy across different media, while college-level instructors will find it useful to demonstrate how one can read primary sources along or against the grain. The Bibliography subsection is a similarly valuable resource for works by and pertaining to Livingstone, making it a useful springboard into more in-depth academic material. On that note, the inclusion of webpages alongside more traditional academic sources here is a nice touch and wholly in line with the site’s commitment to open access.

From a design front, there is little to fault here. As noted by the team in their design notes, every aspect of the site was taken into careful consideration, right down to the types of images used in the homepage’s slideshow. Navigation is done via six colour-coded tabs at the top of the page, with subsections appearing in a scrollable bar just below that. A search-bar in the top righthand corner, too, makes it easy to find material site-wide. In terms of written content, it’s worth noting that the team has taken great pains to ensure users never encounter large walls of text. Introductions and critical essays alike thus include numerous photos, illustrations, maps, and figures, making them engaging and easy to read.

While the feat of digitising, transcribing, and annotating Livingstone’s works would have been impressive enough, Livingstone Online goes one step further by also providing numerous well-written critical essays, transparent project documentation, and thoughtful means to engage with all of the above. In summary, this is a truly excellent resource that helps set the gold standard for digital humanities projects.

Reviewed by Joanna Lee, Monash University

How to Cite This Source

"Livingstone Online," in in World History Commons, [accessed December 8, 2021]
Black text reading Livingstone Online in large font, followed by the subheading illuminating imperial exploration. The background is a litograph of a steamboat on a river.
“While the site is primarily dedicated to digitising the famed British explorer’s works, Livingstone Online is far more than a mere repository of primary sources.”