Contact: Guy Lamolinara (202) 707-9217

April 4, 1995

Whitman Notebooks Available on the Internet

Digital images of four early Walt Whitman notebooks are now accessible on the Internet from the Library of Congress. The four small notebooks and a paper butterfly are back in the Library's custody after 50 years. The notebooks were scanned for electronic dissemination as part of an intricate conservation process that makes the materials available for worldwide research and also preserves the fragile originals for posterity.

"The digital version of these fragile notebooks will be accessible to millions of people in a readable and immediate way," said the Librarian of Congress, James H. Billington. "Seeing these pages transports the reader into the life and mind of Walt Whitman through precise reproduction of pages he wrote with his own hand."

The Conservation Office in the Library's Preservation Directorate gave special treatment to the materials. Conservation treatment of two of the notebooks was required before they could be scanned. Treatment consisted of unbinding the books, washing the pages in water, then deacidifying them as necessary. After air-drying, the leaves were repaired with Japanese paper and cooked starch paste. The two other notebooks did not require as extensive conservation treatment. When scanning was complete, the pages were resewn and reinserted in the original case.

Diane Kresh, Director for Preservation, called the Whitman notebook project a "testbed" for new ideas in preservation. For example, the technology now exists to make microfilm from digital images. But problems in achieving high-resolution images for microfilm still need to be resolved and will be the target of continuing scientific research.

"We are excited by the possibilities of digital technology," said Ms. Kresh. "Not only does it allow us to enhance the legibility of originals, but it also provides access to materials whose fragile condition would otherwise make them inaccessible to the public."

The Preservation Directorate, the Manuscript Division and American Memory (the Library's original digitization project) produced the digitized versions of the Whitman notebooks and an intellectual framework for their interpretation. Researchers will be guided to digital images of notebook pages, a color image of the cardboard butterfly, a photograph of Whitman with the butterfly on his finger and a guide to related Whitman resources in the Library of Congress.

Users can access the digitized materials from the Library's World Wide Web site (

Providing access to the Whitman notebooks is part of the National Digital Library Program at the Library of Congress, which aims, in collaboration with other major institutions, to digitize 5 million items by the year 2000 for electronic dissemination.


On February 24, the Library regained custody of four missing notebooks and a cardboard butterfly of Walt Whitman. (An early 1880s photograph portrayed Whitman seated with a butterfly on an outstretched finger. Scholars have concluded that the butterfly in the photo was in fact the cardboard model found among Whitman's papers after his death in 1892.) The notebooks and butterfly had been missing some 50 years, after having been sent to a remote storage facility during World War II for safekeeping. The Library discovered the disappearance of the missing notebooks and butterfly in 1944, when staff unpacked crates of returning materials. The return of four of the notebooks leaves six that are still missing.

The notebooks and cardboard butterfly came to the Library's attention after they were presented to Sotheby's auction house in New York for appraisal. A New York lawyer settling his father's estate had taken the materials to Sotheby's; he told the auction house that the materials had been a gift to his father, who had had them for about 30 years.

A Sotheby's vice president traced the materials back to the Library, which confirmed on January 25 that the four notebooks were among those deposited at the Library in 1918 by Thomas B. Harned, one of Whitman's three literary executors. Not only are the Harned Collection notebooks among the first Whitman papers received by the Library, whose premiere collection of Whitman materials has grown to more than 98,000 items, but they contain early versions of the poems that appeared in Leaves of Grass.

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PR 95-044
ISSN 0731-3527

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