Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Exploring the Americas in a Humboldt Digital Library

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Exploring the Americas in a Humboldt Digital Library

Article excerpt

    I have omitted to state above the extreme satisfaction I have
    received from Baron Humboldt's communications. The treasures of
    information which he possesses are inestimable and fill us with
    impatience for their appearance in print.
    --Thomas Jefferson, 1804

    I formerly admired Humboldt, I now almost adore him.
    --Charles Darwin, 1832

    Nothing ever stimulated my zeal so much as reading Humboldt's
    Personal Narrative.
    --Charles Darwin, 1865

New computer technology, with the ability to access bodies of texts from on-line libraries and to conduct comprehensive searches, is transforming the way in which research is conducted. The question is whether this new technology can create a clear understanding of the precise geographical and historical context at any one point in a given text, especially in a text that deals with travel or exploration. Can a digital library become a resource to access a text's total environment, including its background and its influence? If so, are these links genuinely enlightening? Can the navigation tools efficiently elaborate on the text and then return to it? If the Humboldt Digital Library, a joint project between the Max Kade Center for German-American Studies at the University of Kansas and the Computer Center at the University of Applied Sciences in Offenburg, Germany, is to become a viable research tool and a model for treating texts with geographical dimensions, we must consider ways of dealing with a number of challenging background issues and technological problems (Doherr 2005). (1)

With extensive observations and written analyses during and after travels in what are today Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Mexico, Cuba, and the United States between 1799 and 1804, Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) generated remarkable advances in diverse disciplines, including geography, anthropology, history, archaeology, sociology, botany, zoology, geology, astronomy, and ecology. He published and illustrated twenty-nine volumes relating to his travels in the Americas. The wide range and complexity of Humboldt's legacy presents major challenges for an edition of his works on the Internet. Our goal is to take advantage of computer technology to accomplish what printed books in Humboldt's time could not: to produce an efficient and comprehensive edition of Humboldt's works to enable users to conduct in-depth searches for specific topics, names, or keywords. Various navigation tools will be guides to relevant texts, locations, images, and maps. Although our initial focus is on Humboldt's works in English translation, our structure will eventually accommodate the works originally written in French, along with translations into German and Spanish. The whole dynamic system will allow users to navigate to related information through the Internet.

At the conclusion of his journey in Latin America, Humboldt's meetings with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and other influential American leaders made a lasting impression on cultural and social history in the United States. Humboldt supplied the political leaders with information and maps to show the geography and mineral resources west of the recently acquired Louisiana region (present-day Texas) (Baron and Hare 2003). As Stephen Gould (2003, 93) wrote, "[In the 1850s] Alexander von Humboldt may well have been the world's most famous and influential intellectual." Not unexpectedly, appreciation of Humboldt's significance is still very much present in Germany and France (where Humboldt resided for long periods). But the greatest appreciation today of his contributions undoubtedly remains in Latin America. Simon Bolivar believed that Humboldt had been the "true discoverer of the Americas" (Helferich 2004,303). Evidence of Humboldt's international relevance points to the need for improved access to his writings. Up to now, however, the highly unconventional form of his publications--often treating several topics or disciplines simultaneously--has undermined awareness and comprehensive study of Humboldt's works. …

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