Friday, July 4, 2014

Paleography matters in the Declaration of Independence: a CITE response

My colleague Tom Martin points me to this article in the New York Times, reporting that Danielle Allen at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton has questioned the National Archives’ transcription of a a crucial phrase in the Declaration of Independence. Are Thomas Jefferson’s “self-evident truths” comprised of individual rights, or do they also include a governmental role “to secure these rights”? Your judgment could hang on whether or not you see a period followed by a long dash or simply a long dash in the original document.

I browsed the National Archives web site, and found that they offer two downloadable images, one a photograph of the original parchment, and another of the 1823 engraving by William Stone, both apparently in the public domain.

So I took a few minutes of my Fourth of July holiday to set up a CITE Image Service where you can browse and create citable references of the images. Here is the detail of the crucial passage in the photograph of the parchment:
Happiness followed by punctuation.
In the Image Collection I created this afternoon, this detail can be cited generically with this URN

and the URN can also be resolved to see the detail in context.

Contrast the Stone engraving:

1823 engraving
1823 engraving
(citable as urn:cite:mid:natarchimgs.Declaration_Engrav_Pg1of1_AC@0.465,0.1919,0.076,0.0177, and viewable in context here)

With references like this, it would be easy to cite other examples in the document of periods and long dashes, much as participants at last week’s Homer Multitext seminar collated evidence to interpret features of the oldest extant manuscript of the Iliad.

Conclusions? The parchment of the Declaration is hard to read, but paleography is important, and the CITE architecture that was originally created for the Homer Multitext project can be applied to any sort of paleographic problem.

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