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David Livingstone’s 1871 Field Diary

A Multispectral Digital Edition

In the year before Stanley finally made contact with explorer and missionary Dr. David Livingstone, Livingstone had worn himself and his supplies almost completely out. Yet he never stopped documenting the landscape, geography and people of what was hitherto a region of Africa barely known by Europeans. 

Unfortunately, given his dire lack of supplies, these letters and notes were written on whatever he had left, mainly an 1869 issue of the Standard newspaper but also the cut off edges of book pages. He had very little ink and so was forced to make an ink out of a local berry which stained a dark red when crushed. These materials mean that today his diary is almost completely indecipherable: not only are the pages crumbling and the ink barely legible but the problem is compounded by the prominence of the newsprint. Livingstone’s diary has degraded to such a degree that it was considered highly unlikely that it would be possible to recover any of the information on the documents. The following images document the process by which Livingstone’s 1871 field diary was able to be read for the first time in over 140 years.

The process—multispectral digital imaging—involves taking 14 photographs of each page of the diary. Each image was taken whilst the page was being exposed to a specific wavelength of light from ultra-violet through the visible spectrum to infrared. This process was achieved using a high resolution small aperture camera and LED light sources. 

This innovative project, the first time spectral imaging has been used with a nineteenth century artefact, encompasses many important areas of the humanities, and provides a visceral link to history as well as showcasing the exciting technology available to modern scholars. 

Kathryn Simpson, Project Scholar, Livingstone Online

Edinburgh Napier University

Project website 

  • Image of 24th of September 1869 London Standard Newspaper
    24th of September 1869 London Standard Newspaper about 24th of September 1869 London Standard Newspaper
  • Image of Testing spectral imaging processing
    Testing spectral imaging processing about Testing spectral imaging processing
  • Image of Examining and preparing the diary
    Examining and preparing the diary about Examining and preparing the diary
  • Image of EurekaVision multi-spectral imaging system
    EurekaVision multi-spectral imaging system about EurekaVision multi-spectral imaging system
  • Image of Capturing the images
    Capturing the images about Capturing the images
  • Image of Livingstone’s diary image stages
    Livingstone’s diary image stages about Livingstone’s diary image stages
  • Image of Spectral image processing uses tailored mathematical algorithms in order to manipulate and enhance raw spectral image data
    Spectral image processing uses tailored mathematical algorithms in order to manipulate and enhance raw spectral image data about Spectral image processing uses tailored mathematical algorithms in order to manipulate and enhance raw spectral image data
  • Image of Spectral image processing uses tailored mathematical algorithms in order to manipulate and enhance raw spectral image data, in the process creating beautiful images in their own right
    Spectral image processing uses tailored mathematical algorithms in order to manipulate and enhance raw spectral image data, in the process creating beautiful images in their own right about Spectral image processing uses tailored mathematical algorithms in order to manipulate and enhance raw spectral image data, in the process creating beautiful images in their own right
  • Image of A page from the diary
    A page from the diary about A page from the diary
  • Image of Identifying the spectral profile of the inks
    Identifying the spectral profile of the inks about Identifying the spectral profile of the inks
  • Image of Pseudocolour
    Pseudocolour about Pseudocolour
  • Image of XML transcription & Digital Publication. In February 2011 the imaging scientists systematically began to produce the processed spectral images
    XML transcription & Digital Publication. In February 2011 the imaging scientists systematically began to produce the processed spectral images about XML transcription & Digital Publication. In February 2011 the imaging scientists systematically began to produce the processed spectral images
  • Image of The 1871 field diary
    The 1871 field diary about The 1871 field diary