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Amherst College criticizes Harvard on Emily Dickinson Archives

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The recent launch of Harvard’s online Emily Dickinson Archives, a compilation of hundreds of images of Dickinson’s original manuscripts, has received critical backlash from Amherst College, Harvard’s historical rival on all things Emily Dickinson.

According to Michael Kelly, head of Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College, it was the way that Harvard went about creating the Emily Dickinson Archives, EDA, that Amherst College found disappointing.

“Harvard pursued and created this online archive without really accepting input from anyone else,” Kelly said. “Our feeling is that this really should have been a collaborative effort and it really was not,”

He added, “It’s not about us not getting credit or not being included. It’s about their scholarly approach.”

The archives are essentially an online imitation of Ralph W. Franklin’s “The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition,” a three-volume edition of Dickinson’s work that was published by the Harvard Press in 1998.

While Franklin’s volume contains 1,789 poems, some of which came from Amherst College’s manuscript collection, it does not include letters and various other available manuscripts associated with Dickinson’s life. These documents were also left out of Harvard’s new archives.

“It would have taken a lot of work and involved a lot of stuff,” Kelly said, referring to Harvard gathering all of Dickinson’s available manuscripts. “They basically cut a lot of corners doing it the way they did, taking a 15-year-old text.”

Elizabeth Giudicessi, Communications Officer at Harvard, was unavailable to comment on the issue.

The EDA website, states that the reproduction of Franklin’s work is the focus of the archives’ first release and acknowledges that the website is not a new edition of Dickinson’s poems. It adds, “The long-term goal … is to provide a single site for access to images of all surviving Dickinson autograph manuscripts.”

According to an article in The Guardian, Harvard curator of books and manuscripts Leslie Morris said the university felt it would be best to start with “a subset of Emily Dickinson’s work” and the edition that included the most poems. There are also plans to expand the site’s content and accessibility. The university hopes to make the application programming interface open and shared with the public in order to “develop new ways of working with the archive’s materials or its technology infrastructure.”

The EDA website also details the project’s future priorities, which include adding images of Dickinson’s letters and metadata, which is data about the manuscripts. Kelly finds the metadata of the manuscripts a priority because the EDA only includes Franklin’s edition, which was published 15 years ago.

“Part of what this project does is erase the last 15 years of scholarship,” Kelly said. “My job is to make things available to researchers.”

He added that Amherst College takes a different approach with their archives. “We’re just going to put up the manuscripts and anyone can do whatever they want with them … we’re not going to filter through some other scholar’s interpretation.”

The animation on the site makes the manuscripts appear like pages in a book that can be flipped, which Kelly said is a “misrepresentation of the material.” He added that he feels the integrity of the manuscript is paramount, and that there was no discussion of the appropriateness in the website’s animation.

The age-old rivalry between Amherst College and Harvard is said to originate from the Dickinson family itself. Harvard’s Houghton Library holds a collection of manuscripts from Susan Dickinson, wife of Emily’s brother Austin Dickinson. Amherst College possesses the manuscripts that belonged to Mabel Loomis Todd, Austin Dickinson’s mistress.

Kelly said the historical feud between the university and college is not what caused Amherst’s EDA criticism.

“I really wish people would stop,” Kelly said. “Someone around here jokes we just want to prove that Mabel Todd is a better lover than Susan Dickinson.”

Despite the continuous exchange between Harvard and Amherst College over the dead poet, Kelly feels there will never be a single authority over the work of Emily Dickinson.

“Really she belongs to the world,” he said.

Kristin LaFratta can be reached at klafratt@umass.edu.

 

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