Last month Amherst College announced a bold new publishing initiative: The Amherst College Press. This new press will be entirely open access — it will produce academic works to the highest standards then give these works away online for free. Bryn Geffert, Librarian of the College, is leading this initiative and frequently invokes the Amherst College motto — Terras irradient “Let them give light to the world” — when he describes his vision for this venture.

Kate's doughnuts.
Kate’s doughnuts. (AC 889)

In same spirit of open access and sharing our light with the world, we are delighted to announce that all of the manuscripts of Emily Dickinson held by Amherst College are now freely available for viewing by anyone with an internet connection anywhere in the world. Last summer the Digital Programs department in Frost Library worked closely with the team in Academic Technology Services to set up a new digital assets management system called Amherst College Digital Collections (ACDC for short). In addition to thousands of images that support the work of Art & Art History students and faculty, ACDC is home to a growing volume of unique materials drawn from the vast holdings of the Archives & Special Collections. The obvious candidate for the first Archives collection to mount in ACDC was Emily Dickinson.

For those eager to dive right in and start exploring the Dickinson manuscripts, just follow this link and start browsing. If you have an Amherst College login and password, you will have access to everything in ACDC; if you do not, you will still be able to search, view, and download Dickinson manuscript images, but you won’t have access to the full range of art history images.

While the standard scholarly edition of Dickinson’s poetry is still the three volume variorum edition produced by Ralph Franklin in 1998, a quick glance through some of Dickinson’s manuscripts makes it clear that no printed text can capture the richness of her original manuscripts. One of my favorite examples of this difference is the poem “The way hope builds his house” (AC 450; Franklin 1512). Franklin describes this manuscript as “…in pencil on a fragment of an envelope…”. Here’s the image of the original now available through ACDC:

The way hope builds his house (AC 450).
The way hope builds his house (AC 450).

Franklin’s description makes no mention of the fact that this slit envelope looks a bit like a house. His transcription of the text doesn’t capture the way the first words are made to fit into the peak of the roof, nor does he include the three lines (dashes?) that separate the two stanzas (floors?). While the Franklin edition does capture the variant wordings that are found throughout Dickinson’s manuscripts, every editor has chosen one reading over another where Dickinson made no clear indication of her preference or intent. In this instance, the final line could be “Or mortised with the Laws” or “And mortised with the Laws”. For the first time in history, images of all of the original Dickinson manuscripts held by Amherst College are readily available online so any reader anywhere can compare their printed edition to the author’s original.

ACDC is very much a work in progress and we will be adding new features, tools, and functionalities in the coming months and years. We will also be adding more content from the collections held in the Archives & Special Collections; we will highlight new additions here on The Consecrated Eminence as material is made available. For now, it is possible to search for particular Dickinson manuscripts by first line or by the various numbering schemes.

All of our manuscripts have been assigned Amherst College numbers — simple inventory numbers that enable us to retrieve the original manuscripts when they are requested. For instance, here is Amherst manuscript number 129, “Alone and in a circumstance”:

Alone and in a circumstance (AC 129).

When Thomas Johnson published his three-volume edition of The Poems of Emily Dickinson in 1955, he identified this poem as number 1167. Ralph Franklin revised the chronological order and numbering of Dickinson’s poems and assigned this one number 1174. All three number systems can be searched via ACDC. A search for “Franklin 1174” will pull up this image, as will a search for “Johnson 1167” or “Amherst 129”.

Full-text searching is not yet possible in ACDC, but you can search for poems by words in the first line. Just typing the word “circumstance” in the search box will retrieve both this item and the poem “All circumstances are the frame”.

Beyond simply searching for individual poems, you can retrieve subsets of manuscripts by searching for phrases such as “Johnson letters” or “Franklin”. My favorite search is “Prose fragment” — a category Johnson included in his 1958 edition of The Letters of Emily Dickinson. One strength of the Amherst College Dickinson Collection is that we hold many fragments and drafts that provide a wealth of information about Dickinson’s writing process.

We invite everyone to search, browse, and explore the rich world of Dickinson’s manuscripts and we are eager to hear your feedback about this new system. Stay tuned to our blog for news of additional materials and new features coming soon to ACDC.