Scanned documents helping to bring historical documents to the present

January 31, 2013

For years, the words of Emily Dickinson were transcribed from the pieces of paper the poet wrote on to books or other forms that could be more easily distributed to the public. However, when looking at  her original writings, it is often difficult to tell exactly what was written, due to Dickinson’s messy handwriting and use of dashes and punctuation marks. Consequently, some scholars disagree on what some words are and worry that by typing up the words, their meaning would be altered.

But recently, Amherst College, which holds the entire collection of Dickinson’s work, scanned all of the “fragments,” the small pieces of paper the poet was known for writing on, to their digital archives. The collection is open for the public to see for themselves, and perhaps make their own decisions regarding what Dickinson was saying.

As Slate Magazine explains, “The Amherst digital collection shows how visually diverse these fragments are, scrawled on backs of envelopes, thin strips of paper, and sheets that seem to have been crumpled and then smoothed out.”

Not only did Dickinson write on small, fragile pieces of paper, but sometimes the style of the paper itself emphasized the poem’s words – in one case, Dickinson wrote about a home on the inside of an opened envelope, making the shape of a house. By scanning these documents, academics can see the poems in their original form beyond the words, no matter where in the world they are.

Scanning documents, and bulk scanning services for large volumes, can help bring the documents of the past into the present, not only as a form of protection but to give those unable to physically view historical documents the opportunity to do so.

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