Recovering narratives: reading through the digital library

Close to the very end of his life in April 1873, explorer David Livingstone mentions a little girl who has joined his expedition. He talks about how she has been able to keep up because she “walks wonderfully,” and how he, upon finding out she is part of the group, sends extra food to her as she has been “weakened greatly” by the starvation his party was enduring whilst they were mired in the Bangweulu wetlands of modern day Zambia. This short entry does not make it into the final published narrative of Livingstone’s Last Journals (1874), but the entry allows insight into the lived reality of travel in nineteenth-century central Africa. The little girl merits just over a page in Livingstone’s diary, and we do not even know her name, let alone what subsequently happened to her when Livingstone died, yet this elusive mention strikes at the very heart of the potential of a digital museum and library like Livingstone Online. While revisionist and postcolonial scholarship has engaged in a substantial reappraisal of the European explorer in Africa, the digital library, as a technology of recovery, is today extending and expediting the process. The digital library enables the user to explore information contained in explorers’ original documents – written in situ, during their travels – which often reveal complexities that are lost in the official expeditionary narratives that they published on their return.

This paper will explore the possibilities of digital humanities to take facilitate the identification of new narratives in historical data via a case study of the lost, or muted, voices that can be identified in the digitised and encoded documents held by Livingstone Online.