Transcribathon!: Noon to Midnight Reading Old Handwriting and Making Digital Texts

photoLast Thursday staff from Penn’s Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts and the Folger Shakespeare Library were joined by students and scholars from the Penn community for a world premiere event. This was (as far as we know) the world’s first ever Transcribathon: twelve hours from noon to midnight of intently examining Renaissance manuscripts and transcribing them using the beta version of an exciting new transcription software called Dromio that the Folger is developing as a part of its Early Modern Manuscript Online (EMMO) project to help make it easier for experts and newbies alike to help make digital transcriptions of centuries old manuscripts.  Transcribathon participants were fortified with both pizza and slices of the manuscript cake (created by hand by yours truly) shown above.

In a blog post from last week in the lead-up to the event, I described some of the difficulties paleographers, or people who read historic handwriting, encounter and some examples of difficult to read provenance inscriptions on POP.  The manuscripts we were inscribing for the transcribathon ranged in terms of how much of a challenge they offered.  Even the easiest hand, Penn Manuscript Ms. Codex 199, contains many of the now obsolete features of writing from the Renaissance period.  One example is the use of a letter, called a “thorn” that looks like a “y” and was commonly used to express a “th” sound.  You can still see this in many business names that go for an old fashioned feel by calling themselves something like “Ye Olde Country Store.”  Even though “Ye Olde” is spelled with a “y,” it is really pronounced the same way as a modern “the.”

You can see an example of this in the image below, which is a screenshot of the Folger Dromio transcription tool being used.  The word “the”  in the next to last line of the dedication to Queen Elizabeth that opens this manuscript is written as something that looks like a “y” with a little “e” over it.


The small window shown to the right of the dedication text in the screenshot is where the transcriber enters all the text on the page in order to create a digital text of that manuscript page.  Where the thorn and the superscript e appear in the manuscript, the transcriber can simply type the modern version of the word: “the”, as I did in the last line of transcription visible in the screenshot.  Then you can use the buttons above the transcription space in the Dromio tool to highlight and signify how the mark actually appears in the manuscript.  By highlighting the “th” and clicking on the “y/th” button (third from the left on the bottom row of buttons), the transcriber is adding a tag that will tell a computer that this “th” was a special character in the original manuscript, and by clicking on the “\^/” button, the transcriber is showing that the “e” was originally a superscript abbreviation shown above the y.  Most of the time things marked up in this way will only show up as color highlights on the letters, but it is also possible to view the xml tags the transcriber has generated as shown below:


This means that transcribathon participants were simultaneously learning to read a nearly 400 year old manuscript, producing a modern typed version of that manuscript text, and generating digital mark-up that will record important features of that original manuscript, all with a little typing and the push of a few buttons.

The example above also demonstrates the way the Dromio software allows people to make mark up, not just special characters, but lots of other things.  For example, the fancy monogram stamp to the left of the dedication text in the image above is the provenance mark of the well known 17th century book collector, Narcissus Luttrell.  In my transcription of the text I could write a description of this mark as Luttrell’s provenance mark and then highlight it and push the “img” button in Dromio so that the xml code will show that it is an image of something, not text that appears in the manuscript itself.  I can also push the “note button” so that my note, “inscribed date under provenance mark,” differentiating the inscription of the date, 1693, that is written under Luttrell’s mark from the main text of the manuscript, will also be tagged as a note instead of as part of my transcription.

It is especially useful to be able to make such notes, and to mark them as separate from the text being transcribed from the manuscript, when it comes to pages containing provenance or other multiple kinds of inscriptions, such as the one shown below.  This page, from Folger manuscript, V.a.103 contains  several different kinds of inscription, including a fragment of Latin, the name and date “Hugh Smyth 1676,” and a somewhat rambling fragment about plenteous drinking (possibly written after the writer had engaged in said activity?).  Here, the ability to write notes allows me to mark each of these as separate inscriptions–inscription 1, 2, 3 etc–so that it is clear that this is not all one piece of text but several different things appearing on the same page.

multi inscriptions

Many people came in and out of the transcribathon and contributed to helping create new digital texts of pages from both the Penn and Folger manuscripts, and every few hours groups of people competed for prizes to see who could transcribe the most quickly and accurately.  A core group of dedicated transcribers even stayed the full 12 hours, as evidenced by the photo of Penn English Department graduate student Alex Devine at the stroke of midnight, showing just how exciting half a day of transcription can be!

Check out the post about this event on the Folger’s blog, The Collation with additional images and information about the EMMO project.


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