EDA: Connecting to a Past we Never Fully Knew

By musing_lis



Almost everyone is familiar with the poet Emily Dickinson in some way. Dickinson is remembered to be a private poet and is well known for her short poems with themes of isolation. In her lifetime, only a dozen out of roughly eight-hundred of her poems were published. Since she led a life so private, most of her friendships are evident through correspondence.

Today launches the Emily Dickinson Archive, a large scale open-access digital archive containing all of the poets surviving manuscripts. This project was two years in the making, led by Harvard University Press in collaboration with Houghton Library, Amherst College, and the Boston Public Library. “It collects many surviving manuscripts of the slight, shy poet who once called herself — with considerable irony — “the Belle of Amherst.”(The Harvard Gazette).

So what might this 19th-century poet make of the decidedly immodest archive of her poems being released today, bringing to light in one digital place most of her surviving manuscripts?

The compilation of these digital documents sparked great controversy from a feud that has continued for generations. The collaboration between institutes sparked debates over ownership. It has been stated that the site is intended to “facilitate scholarship” and not “make the scholarship”. The two year project required overcoming jealousies in effort to create a “neutral online space for gathering manuscripts”. Some members of the scholarly community disagreed with such claims, stating “archives are not neutral spaces and the presentation of documents is to some degree interpretive”.

Such disagreements connect to the earlier reading of Questioning Library Neutrality, in which the social and political roles of libraries are discussed – the question of how the archive might impact public perception and support. The scholars disagreeing with the claim that EDA is a “neutral online space for gathering manuscripts” likely find contradiction in the assertion that there’s an absence of decided views, expression, or strong feeling.

With the evident controversies surrounding the institutions collaboration with such jealousies over ownership their is evidence that perhaps the debate is concerning the trading of cultural capital and in that “who controls the information, controls power over that society”. That society being the community of scholars interested in the knowledge organized on EDA. Controversies surrounding the archive exceed the topic of information literacy.

The conflicts surrounding the archive’s manuscripts, many of which some scholars consider nonessential, derives from the overarching goal to bring all of Dickinson’s work to light. The institutions collection of works strived to skip on of the age old archival practices; “Archival work is about making fine discriminations to identify what is significant from a mass of data”. Instead, EDA makes available any and all of the poets work, perhaps in effort for scholars to better understand the very private poet and her life of solitude. In that approach, it must have been conceivably easier for the process of archiving these works, documents, and manuscripts. It has been observed in the past, a universal philosophic problem  in the “underpinnings of both library and archival collection and cataloging practices”. In many cases, the difficulties in archiving are rooted in the process of determining how and what to acquire, preserve, and catalog. It is possible that the EDA project portrays a newer approach to scholarly archives. In considering Marlene Manoff’s journal, Theories of the Archive from Across the Disciplines, and the section on Implications for Future Research, perhaps EDA falls under this archival discourse about the changes in knowledge-making practices. One argument from Manoff’s journal is that “open archives are a cornerstone of a free and informed society”.

“What if those manuscripts were the very ones Dickinson hesitated to publish in her own lifetime, or — in bursts of cheerful immodesty — delivered to friends with fresh gingerbread or a bouquet of flowers? What if that archive revealed, in every variant, all of her known poems? And what if it showed the world how her handwriting began to slope and sprawl as she got older, and that she sometimes wrote poems on old bills, paper bags, or the backs of envelopes?”

While we will never have those questions answered from the renowned poet herself, one can hope she might appreciate the role she has played in the modernization of archives.  Emily Dickinson was a reclusive person and a poet that found inspiration from the confines of her home. Things have changed for Dickinson, while she was once isolated from the outside, her work’s now available to the world. The article released by the Harvard Gazette explains, “It’s that enduring drive to know Dickinson better that the EDA is trying to capture.”  In Manoff’s journal“despite their limitations, we cling to archival materials in the hope of somehow connecting to a past we can never fully know” (p. 17).







Dickinson, Emily. Final harvest: Emily Dickinson’s poems. Boston: Little, Brown, 1961.

Manoff, Marlene. “Theories Of The Archive From Across The Disciplines.”portal: Libraries and the Academy 4, no. 1 (2004): 9-25.



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