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Launch of Digital Dickinson Archive Clouded by Controversy

By Meg P. Bernhard and Jennifer Leung, Contributing Writers

Wednesday’s launch of the Emily Dickinson Archive, a Harvard-led open-access website compiling hundreds of images of the poet’s surviving manuscripts, was supposed to be a celebration of successful scholarly collaboration. But a public dispute with Amherst College over control of and credit for the project has clouded the once-heralded launch.

The Boston Globe first reported on Sunday that Amherst officials are unhappy with the way the Harvard officials leading the archive proceeded with the project, which brings together hundreds of previously undigitized Dickinson poems from Harvard’s collection with more than 500 of Amherst’s already digitized Dickinson manuscripts.

Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences spokesperson Colin Manning wrote in an email Tuesday that the project was collaborative.

Harvard made it a point to reach out to all of these institutions and organizations, including Amherst College, in an effort to bring together manuscripts from multiple libraries and archives, which makes this new site a powerful tool for students, scholars and readers,” he wrote.

Yet when reached by phone Tuesday, involved officials said that the project, which also engaged a handful of other collaborators in the region and across the country, has been riddled with disagreements since even before its inception.

For half a century, Harvard and Amherst have disagreed about whether Amherst is the legitimate owner of some of its 850 Dickinson manuscripts.

And in Fall 2011, when Harvard approached Amherst about contributing its collections to a planned Harvard digital archive, a new dispute ensuedthis time over whether the digital archive should be open-access. According to Michael Kelly, Head of Archives and Special Collections at Amherst College, Harvard had initially envisioned a subscription site in which scholars would be required to pay to view Dickinson’s manuscripts, but Amherst would not agree to contribute its documents unless the digital archive was fully accessible to the public.

“Our initial objection was that we would be happy to collaborate with Harvard on a digital Dickinson project, but only if it was completely free and open-access,” Kelly said. “But they had to wait until they got some funding for the project.”

As the project progressed, involved officials said, Harvard sometimes proved to be unwilling to cede control of the project to Amherst or bend to the suggestions of the archive’s advisory board.

According to Kelly, the two colleges also disagreed about what types of Dickinson manuscripts warranted inclusion in the archive. While Harvard officials wanted to include only full poems in the archive, Amherst hoped to include manuscripts ranging from lengthy poems to scraps of Dickinson’s notes. While a compromise was reached—the archive will for now include just poems and later include other manuscriptsKelly said he believes this staggering to be “an unnecessary limitation.”

Kelly also said Amherst officials “didn’t have much input” in the design of the site.

“It was not a full collaboration,” Kelly said. “We gave them our manuscripts, and they put them up in the way that they had already decided to put them up.”

According to Martha Nell Smith, a University of Maryland professor who helped advise the project, Harvard decided against the advisory board’s urging to encode a collection of all versions of Dickinson’s known poetry into the site, as opposed to just encoding the original manuscripts.

“That’s the only time I can remember them basically saying, ‘No, we’re not going to take your advice,’ and that’s their prerogative,” said Smith, who added that she believes Harvard considered everything the advisory board suggested.

Smith also confirmed that at least one member of the advisory board resigned, though she declined to comment on the reason.

Leslie A. Morris, a Harvard librarian in charge of the project who also convened the advisory board, declined to elaborate on Manning’s comment on the dispute.

Elisa New, a Harvard English professor who is not involved in the archive, said that based on her limited knowledge of the dispute, she senses that the tensions are “about credit and attribution.”

“I doubt, myself, that Harvard meant to disrespect Amherst, but I’m not a party to this,” New said.

Despite the recent strife, scholars from both Amherst and Harvard alike expressed optimism about the archive’s launch.

“I myself feel incredibly happy that this level of openness is where we’ve gotten to,” New said. “If we can provide digital access to scholars and learners all over the world, I am delighted that we can do that.”

For his part, Kelly found a silver lining in the dispute.

“Dickinson always generates interest and controversy, and as usual, it’s generally blown out of proportion,” Kelly said. “If this makes people pay more attention to Dickinson, and if this little bit of controversy makes people look at this Harvard Dickinson website who may not have done so before, that’s only a good thing.”

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