Come transcribe our items!

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Recently, we talked about adding your own metadata to photos through our new Acumen tagging pane. Today, the focus is on something a bit more involved but maybe even more important: transcribing handwritten documents.

Why transcribe?

  • Did you know that many young people nowadays aren’t even taught to read and write in cursive? Handwritten archival materials are more and more in danger of being unintelligible to the average person, but often they represent the most unique materials out there: personal diaries, letters, and notes from the famous, the infamous, and the unknown, detailing everything from a typical day to a major event.
  • Did you know that handwritten items in a digital repository are usually not keyword searchable? Computers need data in a form they can understand. Optical character recognition (OCR) technology can attempt to read typewritten material and translate it to a computer-readable text file, but this technology doesn’t work on handwritten materials.

The solution to both these problems is simple: we need a human to read and transcribe handwritten documents, both for others to read and for the computer to use in searching. Acumen makes this easy by providing a place for transcription when viewing any image or listening to any audio file.

How does transcription work?

Acumen's transcription pane

  1. Click the transcription icon (looks like a sheet of paper), found to the right of the main viewer window
  2. Type a transcription of the displayed image into the entry box
  3. Click on the blue ‘Add Transcript’ button

You really want me to transcribe things?

John Poor letter, circa 1863Yes, you! We know transcribing documents can be a bit intimidating. Here’s some things to consider:

  • You don’t have to be an expert
    • Don’t know what a particular word is? Transcribe it letter by letter anyway; it might be a word or abbreviation we no longer use
    • Can’t make sense of a particular word at all? Use a question mark inside brackets to represent it [?]
  • You don’t always have to start from scratch
    • Some handwritten items have already been transcribed and just need someone to check the transcript over and help with harder to read words
    • Some typed items have computer-generated transcripts that you can correct; these will include a little orange box that says ‘OCR’
  • You don’t have to do an entire item at once
    • Transcription is done on the page level, so you can do as little as a page at a time
    • In fact, if you can only do part of a page, that’s better than having no transcription at all; others can add to your work later

Does it really add anything?

Absolutely! Consider the image above, a letter from a Confederate soldier to his niece. Right now, the metadata carries a pretty good general description: John H. Poor writes his little niece, Fanny, about sleeping and eating arrangements in the army. He drew a few sketches to illustrate.

A lot of the interest is in those sketches. However, there’s also text, so having a transcript gives the drawings a context:

John H. Poor letter transcription

How about a more weighty example. This diary written by a Confederate soldier at the siege of Port Hudson is 157 pages, but without a transcript, we only have a general description of the whole: This diary discusses Civil War battles fought in 1862 and 1863, especially the Siege of Port Hudson, a Confederate fortification on the Mississippi River in southern Louisiana.

Below is a transcription of page 9:

James A. Goble diary transcription, page 9

With a transcription, we can learn so much here about what it was actually like at this siege: James Goble is tired of the war and prays for peace; they were using mounted weapons to attack Union boats; they made African Americans do their hard labor; they used “cars,” probably railroad cars, for shipping things; they could still get sugar and molasses; and Port Hudson was a bit of a ghost town by this point in the war. And all this from just one page!

Next time you’re looking at a handwritten document in Acumen, consider providing a transcription, especially if you’re already trying to make sense of that item for your own research. The integrated transcription pane allows you to share your work with others using the resources, and to make those resources more findable during a search.

Looking for a fun place to start? Check out Ashley Bond’s post on a series of love letters, just in time for Valentines Day, at the Special Collections blog Cool at Hoole.

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