Folger Transcribathon at VCU: Creating and Empowering a Community of New Paleographers

A few weeks ago, the Virginia Commonwealth University English Department, the VCU Humanities Research Center and VCU Libraries held the university’s first transcribathon in conjunction with the Folger Shakespeare Library’s ongoing crowdsourced transcription project, Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO for short). The event was a chance for students and interested members of the public to learn to read early modern handwriting, particularly two styles: the loopy and complex secretary hand and the more straight-forward, though still challenging and unfamiliar, italic hand.  By the posted start time of 12 p.m., the multipurpose room of VCU’s James Branch Cabell Library was packed with scores of novice paleographers, ready to try their hand at reading and transcribing some hundreds-of-years-old hand-written documents.

The intent of the Folger’s EMMO project is to amplify the usability of their vast manuscript collection.  Dromio, EMMO’s online transcription interface, presents users with an extremely high quality digitization of an early modern manuscript, along with a box in which to record transcriptions.  When the user encounters

Dromio, the online transcription/encoding tool for EMMO. MS V.a. 103 Collection of Poems...: fol. 76v.

Dromio, the online transcription/encoding tool for EMMO. MS V.a. 103 Collection of Poems…: fol. 76v.

an abbreviation or other unusual bit of script, such as hand drawn fleuron (an ornamental leaf or flower petal like symbol, such as this: ❧) or some sort of organizational piece of script, such as a heading on a page, the user can use a button included within in the transcription box to indicate that what is being transcribed is something peculiar.  These buttons add XML encoding to the transcription, which eventually will be used to make EMMO fully searchable both in terms of text and non-verbal characters.

The nearly 100 attendees of the VCU transcribathon (including students, professors, librarians, hobbyists and members of other local cultural institutions such as the Virginia Historical Society) spent the first part of the afternoon listening to a crash course on the secretary hand alphabet from Dr. Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger, in which Dr. Wolfe took the room through each of the letter forms in both majuscule and miniscule (capital and lowercase), pointing out some of the telltale signs of unfamiliar letterforms. After Dr. Wolfe’s lesson, as well as brief introductions by VCU Library’s Humanities Collections Librarian, Dr. Kevin Farley, and two professors of early modern English from VCU’s English department, Dr. Claire Bourne and Dr. Joshua Eckhardt, the gathering of paleographers dove into working on two digitized manuscripts.

First, there was MS Folger V.a.103, a verse miscellany written in the more accessible italic hand with some elements of secretary hand.  Think italicized font on your computer with slightly varying letter forms including d’s with looped and left-leaning ascenders and the “long s,” as well as some contemporary abbreviations like “ye” for “the”and “wch” for “which”.

The more challenging of the two manuscripts was MS Folger V.b.110, the very diverse miscellany of Henry Oxinden, which included recipes, bits of scripture and passages from literary sources.  This manuscript was written in a more typical (and sloppier) secretary hand, complete with low-swooping and curved h’s and words that seem to be just a series of indistinguishable minims (the vertical sections of m, n, i, and u).

Though the study of paleography is typically assumed to be reserved for more advanced academics, all of the participants (many of which were undergraduates) had at least some success with reading and transcribing these two manuscripts.  Having had the chance to spend some time with EMMO in the spring of 2015 through an independent study, I was able to offer some slight assistance to a few of the other attendees by helping them work through convoluted words or by simply being a second pair of eyes.  What was truly gratifying about the afternoon was that my services were barely needed by even the most novice paleographers and most of the attendees progressed through at least a couple of the digitized images.

The other standout quality of the day was the pervasive social aspect at work in the room.  Many of the participants broke in to groups of about three and shared a single computer screen and manuscript. At the table at which I was working, everyone had their own computer screen and was working on their own transcription, but we were constantly asking for each other’s opinions on words or difficult letters.  This was a far cry from my previous experience with transcription,; when working alone made each road

Dr. Paul Dingman (standing on the right) addresses the VCU transcribathon as Dr. Heather Wolfe (standing on the left) helps an undergraduate paleographer. Photo courtesy of Sue Robinson, Director of Communications and Public Relations for VCU Libraries.

Dr. Paul Dingman (standing on the right) addresses the VCU transcribathon as Dr. Heather Wolfe (standing on the left) helps an undergraduate paleographer. Photo courtesy of Sue Robinson, Director of Communications and Public Relations for VCU Libraries.

block seem insurmountable.  I eventually learned to put the manuscript aside for a while so that I could look at it with fresh eyes after a bit of a reprieve.  At the transcribathon, however, not only did students get help from experienced paleographers (Dr. Wolfe, Dr. Bourne, and Dr. Eckhardt, as well as Dr. Paul Dingman, EMMO’s project manager and Sarah Powell, EMMO’s official paleographer), but they were able to combine their different perspectives to tackle the more challenging words and phrases. (I would be remiss not to mentioned the support offered by the Folger’s Database Applications Associate, Michael Poston, who was at the transcribathon keeping an eye on what was happening behind the scenes.)

The event’s communal feeling was reflective of what Folger is doing with EMMO and Dromio.  The transcriptions that end up going into the digital archives of EMMO are collations of multiple transcriptions, vetted by an expert paleographer.  That the contributions are uncredited and amalgamated, along with the Folger’s intent of maximizing the usability and accessibility of their manuscript collection, points to a very democratic way of crowdsourcing contributions for EMMO that maintains scholarly responsibility.  It is only fitting that the experience of the nearly 100 attendees to VCU’s transcribathon was one where their social interactivity lead to equal and spontaneous support, even tutoring, of each other.

Not only do these democratic conditions create a pedagogical technique and scholarly outcome that is deserving of further analysis and emulation, but the egalitarian feel of the transcribathon added an air of confidence to the event.  This confidence is really the most intrinsically valuable thing to come out of the transcribathon, as it provides the attendees with a good experience in a humanities centered event and perhaps positions them to be involved in similar events in the future.

In just four hours, the VCU transcribathon not only helped contribute to an exciting developing resource, but also began to foster an attitude of democratic pedagogy and confidence among dilettante paleographers.  What could possibly be better for aggrandizing manuscript studies and the reclamation of the humanities as a worthwhile and important pursuit than putting the uninitiated in a position where they can feel empowered and successful, all while reading things that have seemed until this point to be out of the scope of amateur ability?

Julian Neuhauser

Julian Neuhauser

Julian Neuhauser is working on his Master's degree in English literature at Virginia Commonwealth University where he focuses on Cavalier poets, their clubs, and 17th century book history. Julian also currently works at VCU's library as a special collections cataloger and in the book preservation department.
Julian Neuhauser

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