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First Contact with Nineteenth-Century Script

First Contact with Nineteenth-Century Script

“We’re organizing a transcribe-a-thon for Douglass Day this year.” My colleague’s announcement led to my first contact with nineteenth-century script and to my first efforts at transcribing said script. How hard could it be, I said to myself, after all I’m old enough that my default script is cursive and I can read my writing most of the time. Moreover, for years I’ve had to decipher my students’ chicken scratch on exams. So for sure this was going to be a piece of cake. Side note and a public service announcement, for students, new teachers, and future teachers: based on experience, the more illegible the handwriting on an exam the more likely the answer is wrong. That, however, is the subject for another post, since my topic today is transcribing nineteenth-century script. 

I’ve been studying and conducting historical research for years, thus it was a little surprising to realize that I had never really interacted with nineteenth-century or older script. How could that be? Thinking back I realized the following: while my undergraduate textbooks might have featured illustrations of handwritten documents, the author had already transcribed them. In the spirit of full disclosure I admit that I might have glanced at the handwriting but I never attempted to read the actual document. Additionally, my upper division courses tended to focus on the early to mid-twentieth century and the primary documents I consulted were typed and printed. Similarly, as a master’s student, when my attention shifted to Ancient Greece and Rome, the primary documents I used were all in translation in published volumes and therefore printed. Now, years later in my Ph.D. program, I study the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries, once more many of my primary sources are printed and, in quite a few instances, digitized. This is how I find myself in 2019, nearing the end of my doctoral studies and encountering nineteenth-century script for the first time.

My colleague’s advice was to practice prior to our transcribe-a-thon and to note what worked, what gave me difficulties and how I resolved my issues. This, she explained, would become handy when we spoke to our volunteers on event day. I set aside some time and logged into the Smithsonian Transcription Center and chose a document from the Freedmen’s Bureau. Here are some of the lessons I learned during that first and the subsequent sessions as a volunteer transcriber. First, choose documents on a subject that interests you. I chose records pertaining to education. My first transcription project was a multi-page letter written by a teacher. My choice was wise. Written by an educated individual the writing was more legible than in other examples. I quickly realized that as a no longer twenty-two-year old (that’s as close as you will get to my actual age), my eyesight was not what it used to be. To mitigate this issue I set the document to full screen and zoomed in as much as I could. This, of course, meant that the transcription box was no longer accessible on my computer screen. The latter led to my second insight, I went old school and pulled out paper and pencil (I prefer pencil to pen since you can erase) and wrote out what I read long hand. This tactic served a dual purpose, it allowed me to make the document as big as necessary on the screen, and as I typed what I had handwritten I could check my work for accuracy and edit as needed. At first the transcription process was slow but increasing familiarity with the handwriting resulted in my going faster by the time I reached page two. I also realized that reading and rereading what I had transcribed, and considering context when something did not make sense, were key. It also turns out punctuation for my nineteenth-century teacher was not even a suggestion. While I have my own issues with punctuation, NO punctuation whatsoever was startling to say the least. The aim is to transcribe the document exactly as it appears, so sharing the extra commas that crop up in my writing was not an option. I also had to resist the urge to correct some of the more creative spelling I encountered.

I suspected that transcribing a table would be difficult and was not far off the mark. I would say, however, that it was more tedious than hard. Again, since I was looking at records having to do with education the handwriting’s legibility was not typically the problem, but deciphering some of the abbreviations was (e.g. it took a while and some assistance to figure out that Cr on an invoice probably meant credit). Keeping the columns aligned with the pipettes was one of the most time consuming aspects, especially since they require frequent adjustments if a word further down the column extends beyond the initially set border. Confession: I’m pretty sure I messed up the first table I transcribed – Thanks Smithsonian for not revoking my transcription privileges after that! The tables took so long that I was not actually able to finish the two I attempted. FYI for those like me who don’t know: on your keyboard the pipette is the straight line above the backward slash – the last key above the return/enter key.

I completed two transcription sessions with a group. This was good because I was able to consult with my fellow volunteers when something was not clear. As my colleague put it, “don’t be afraid to crowd-source something you don’t understand.” Though we were focused on the task at hand our Transcribe-a-thons were social and we laughed quite a bit as we worked. In the end, I rate my first encounters with nineteenth-century script and my attempts at transcription successful. My measures for success are simple: I learned something new and I contributed something positive. This endeavor met both criteria. I leave you with something for the file, “The More Things Change, The More They Stay The Same:” Remember that letter from the nineteenth-century teacher? He was requesting a salary increase because he did not believe his compensation was commensurate with the amount work he was putting forth. 

If you are interested in having your own encounter with handwritten documents of the past and transcribing them, visit the Smithsonian’s transcription center and register for a free account: You can choose to transcribe or review documents about art, science, Native American or Women’s history and a myriad other categories. It is definitely a worthwhile exercise for those with an interest in the digital humanities.


1 comment

Great post!