How 19th Century Sexual Transgressions Are Reflected in 21st Century Information Design

There is a story on the website of the Chronicle of Higher Education today about

Emily Dickinson MSS at Houghton Library: Wild Nights!—Wild Nights! Autograph manuscript, in fascicle 11, ca. 1861. MS Am 1118.3 (38b). Gift, Gilbert H. Montague, 1950.© President and Fellows of Harvard College.

the “acrimony” between Harvard and Amherst College which is disrupting efforts to create a comprehensive  open access on-line archive for the  manuscript papers of the reclusive poet Emily Dickinson.  For over a century, efforts to aggregate these papers have been stymied  by the fruits of a bitter rivalry between Susan Dickinson, the wife of Emily’s brother, Austin Dickinson, and Mabel Todd,  who was the first editor of the poems, and who had a long doubly adulterous love affair with Austin. Mabel’s stash of papers wound up at Amherst College while Susan’s heirs sent their holdings to Harvard, where it is considered the jewel in the crown of Harvard’s 19th century manuscript collection at Houghton Library. Now that Houghton is preparing to launch the  online archive and Amherst, which is listed as one among several collaborators, feels  slighted, accusing Harvard of appropriating their assets without sharing the design decisions or access to their own collection. What can we learn from this?

Emily Dickinson’s handwritten manuscripts have been the source of an enormous variorum edition, and provide enticing evidence of revisions and alternate word choices, so having her papers in one place and in an on-line open access archive can seem like an unobjectionally appropriate project. But lived experience has a way of  trumping comprehensive information design. Sexual and family antagonism can be institutionalized as antagonism between rival universities. A seemingly neutral repository can be seen as another pull in a multi-generational tug-of-war, allowing Harvard to appropriate Amherst’s resources, and a long-dead wife to symbolically triumph over her husband’s lover.  It is a good example for digital media designers to bear in mind — every store of human documents, no matter how dusty, no matter how old, no matter how reclusive or specialized its origin, carries with it the complex social and cultural relationships  that exist in the flesh and blood experiential world.

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