Anyone who doubts that extra-curricular humanities programming can draw a crowd should have been at VCU's James Branch Cabell Library last Friday, November 13, where upwards of 100 people—most of them undergraduates—spent the afternoon transcribing seventeenth-century manuscripts for the Folger Shakespeare Library's crowd-sourced and soon-to-be web-accessible Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) project.
As the Folger's Curator of Manuscripts Heather Wolfe reminded us in her opening remarks, the ability to read hand-written historical documents informs how we understand our cultural, social, political, religious, and economic inheritance. Wolfe stressed that manuscripts didn't die out with the rise of printing, Instead, manuscript production flourished. Printed texts were "just the tip of the textual iceberg." What would happen, she asked, if more people could read the manuscripts that are only currently accessible to a select few with special paleography training? What would we be able to learn about our past?
To this end, EMMO's long-term goal is to make text-searchable transcriptions of all the Folger's manuscripts freely available online to researchers, teachers, and students. Its longer-term goal is to partner with other institutions to expand the database beyond the Folger's collection.
The transcribathon opened with the basics: (1) an assurance that paleography is an art, not an exact science; and (2) a "whirlwind tour" of the secretary hand alphabet. Drawing on her own first encounters with secretary hand, Wolfe offered tricks for recognizing particularly tricky letterforms (the bucket r and the butcher-hook h, for example). Participants had copies of the Folger's handy alphabet book and abbreviation cheat-sheet for reference. They also had a team of four Folger experts to help with particularly thorny words and phrases.
Participants chose between transcribing pages from MS Folger V.a.103, a poetic miscellany written in a mixed secretary and Italic hand, and the more challenging MS Folger V.b.110, Henry Oxinden's notebook of literary extracts, receipts, personal notes, aphorisms, &c. To make their transcriptions, participants used Dromio, the Folger's web-based transcription and collation tool. (Some participants brought their own laptops, while others borrowed machines provided by VCU Libraries.) The Dromio interface displays a high-resolution digital image of a given manuscript page and a small, overlayed text box in which to type the transcription. It also makes available shortcuts for XML encoding—such as "ex" (for "expansion"), "ins" (for "insertion"), and "\^/" (for "superscript to be lowered"). There are also tags for places, proper names, and monetary amounts.
The great thing about Dromio—and one huge reason why the size of the VCU transcribathon was no big deal—is that it supports several people transcribing the same page simultaneously. (For example, nine people transcribed the page pictured at the top of this post.) In fact, multiple transcriptions of the same page are desirable because it allows the EMMO team to collate all the attempts and produce a "majority rules" transcription that can then be cleaned up by expert paleographers like Sarah Powell, who was also on hand to help out on Friday. All credit to Michael Poston, the Folger's database specialist, for his work on every aspect of Dromio, but especially on this collation feature. The "majority rules" approach to transcription that the collation feature facilitates really means that every transcription counts. This, in turn, means that even beginner paleographers—like so many at Friday's transcribathon—are able to contribute to the project.
Transcribing also offers a way into reading literary texts, one that puts a premium on context and exegesis, as my colleague Joshua Eckhardt has put it. Reading seventeenth-century secretary hand doesn't just require a knowledge of letterforms. It also requires close-reading skills. Many students at the transcribathon figured out difficult or poorly written words not only by piecing them out letter-by-letter—or "Wheel of Fortune-style," as one student described it—but also by considering which words would make sense given the context. I use transcription in my courses as a way of slowing down the reading process. By defamiliarizing the text, transcription helps students notice more—and read more attentively for context and meaning.
Working with Dromio invites us to evaluate the use of digital surrogates in the production and circulation of archives. The interface makes it clear that we're looking at an image of a unique material object, and the metadata attached to the image makes it clear who made it, when it was made, where/how you can find it, &c. The digital text doesn't offer the kind of abstraction of a poem you might find by Googling a first line and clicking on a top hit. Instead, it offers the image of a unique document that, without EMMO, might never leave the vault at the Folger, save to be used by scholars who have the means to come to Washington DC to see it and the ability to read it.
Friday's transcribathon gets EMMO just a little bit closer to making semi-diplomatic transcriptions that record many (but not all*) of these manuscripts' textual features more widely available for teaching and researching. Oh, and there's some buzz about a "second annual" transcribathon. Stay tuned!
For photos and a by-the-numbers account of last week's event, please scroll down. You can also search for #transcribeVCU and #folgerEMMO on Twitter.
* While Dromio allows you to record what have been termed "metamarks," it doesn't allow you to record the particularities of these "metamarks" (horizontal rules or special characters such as pilcrows and manicules, for example). While it allows you to tag something as a header, indicate page breaks, and note the presence of an image, you can't record alignment or indentation. I'm curious to know whether other transcription tools allow you to record these features of mise-en-page.
length of the transcribathon in minutes
total number of participants
percentage of participants who are undergraduates
number of participants for local cultural institutions
number of discrete pages transcribed
number of V.a.103 pages transcribed (including double+ transcriptions)
number of V.b.110 pages transcribed (including double+ transcriptions)
Special thanks to the following sponsors for making the transcribathon possible: The Folger Shakespeare Library, VCU Libraries, the VCU Humanities Research Center, the VCU English Department.