If you’ve never had the opportunity to browse through the Blake archive, take their newest addition to the collection as an excuse to get lost in the art and poetry of William Blake (1757 – 1827). On October 31st, the William Blake Archive announced the addition of 43 digitized pencil drawings done by Blake, now as a part of their freely available online archive. There’s an astounding amount of material available to view, and these new pencil drawings only add to what I found to be a surprisingly diverse digital archive.
What I like best about these pencil drawings is that they showcase everything that a digital archive can do for both casual and specialized viewers. There are very few museum exhibits that would focus on making small, unfinished sketches such as these available to a broad public, and in a specialized physical archive only scholars who already knew about their existence would have the chance to see them. The publication announcement mentions that Blake didn’t intend for them to be “exhibited or displayed,” and that most were discarded by collectors unless they had something more polished on the other side of the paper. For this reason, we’re lucky to have the sketches at all, and the pencil drawings show a rare peek into the methods of the artist that would be difficult to get otherwise. The digital nature of the Blake Archive expands the audience for a group of fairly obscure William Blake pencil sketches beyond the dedicated Blake scholar and allows a casual peruser of interesting art collections to gain these valuable insights.
Another striking benefit of the digital archive is that I can zoom in on a drawing so clearly that I can see fingerprint smudges on the paper – which I think combats the distance that a screen can sometimes put between user and material.The website provides an uncommon opportunity to explore these minute details. As a novice to the field, I only wish that there was more accompanying material with the drawings to explain the technical terms and Blake references. I wanted the page to link to additional materials and help me connect these drawings with contextual works and writings, which is a feature that would fit well into the otherwise seamless website experience. This is especially important because the connection to users and the availability of the information, textual and visual, is what makes digital archives like this one so valuable; the work that the Blake Archive is doing is essential to making information and education accessible to everyone.
The William Blake Archive is tied to the Research Triangle through UNC Chapel Hill, though it is also supported by the University of Rochester and the Library of Congress, among others. It stands as one of the Research Triangle’s largest and most prestigious digital humanities projects.