Category Archives: Folger Shakespeare Library

Historians Can’t Code

On the third of November our class decided to attempt coding our transcription work. Being a history student I can’t say my knowledge of coding is anything more than minimal. Friends that do maths have often been on the receiving end of blank stares as they try to explain exactly what it is that they are doing, or how it all works. So when our teacher announced we were going to try our hand at it, naturally I was a bit concerned. Looking over the notes for the class did nothing to calm my nerves. A sea of dots and slashes made no sense to me, but even so I went to class with the determination to crack this. By the end of our lesson I definitely had, at the least, a shaky understanding of how to use it.

We were coding on the same website we transcribe on, Dromio, a Folger Shakespeare Library platform. The type of code we learnt is called XML, which is an extensible mark-up language. It essentially helps us describe a document which has been electronically converted. It makes it easy to import and export the document, as the code will always stay the same if you are moving it somewhere new. The coding means you can trace information easily, so for historians we can find things like amounts or ingredients. I’m sure you will find a lot more coherent instructions and explanations of what XML is and how you use it on any number of websites so instead this blog will write about why we used it and how I found the experience.

So why is XML coding helpful to historians? Essentially it is for ease of searching these documents. If you decided to transcribe a document into say, Microsoft Word there would be lots of details in the text that you would not be able to communicate that may be interesting to a historian looking into a document. XML allows us to make easy notes on things such as whether there are things crossed out, if there are things written in the margin, or if a word is written in shorthand. It also allows us to note things like amounts used in a recipe. This is essentially so the computer knows what kind of thing you have put in and, as Lisa put it, the document can ‘communicate’ with other documents by looking for common themes or structures.

Another benefit is that those poor suffering historians who are working on a field that is nowhere near where they live can now access the documents from the comfort of their own home. Lots of archives and libraries, such as The Wellcome Library, are now very helpfully digitizing their documents. This means a wider range of people can access this information. However without the coding involved in transcribing a document it may be hard to find the documents you need without manually searching through records that may or may not have the information you need. Transcribing with XML means lots of key information will be tagged for you, saving hours of work – Huzzah!

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A very rough start to coding. My attempt at XML coding on V.a.619 Receipt book of Margaret Baker’s page 101 and 102

It was interesting, coming from a background with no knowledge of doing any actual coding. Admittedly we had a lot of help from our teacher, but I still felt like if needed I could do it myself and it definitely left me eager to try more. Leaving the lesson I decided to see if I could try and finish the coding of the transcription myself and managed to do a half decent job. There were some mistakes, for instance line breaks where there should not be line breaks, but I definitely benefited from it and actually found it surprisingly fun.

In a way it made it easier to acknowledge what the notes I was putting my transcription did. By coding in that I needed to put <amount> I knew that people would be able to search for that, rather than pressing a button and hoping I remembered to put it in. Although the system is primarily to help search and compare digitized texts in my view it actually helped me look closer at the text I was transcribing. This is actually fairly vital to a history student as many essays involve looking closely at primary sources and trying to understand them. For example, when transcribing the page there is a rather interesting ingredient involving a dead mans head. At first look it seems as though it is saying a pound of a dead mans head, but on closer inspection it says pouder (powder). This suggests all sorts of interesting things about what people did with the dead and how they were preserved, which could have been easily overlooked.

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An interesting ingredient found in V.a.619: Receipt book of Margaret Baker page 101 and 102

However I am very glad that Dromio has a system in place to do this work for me. At the click of a button you can go from coding the XML yourself to a HTML, where the writing is presented without the code. This is definitely an awful lot easier to read.  While I know that I could do the coding if necessary it is an awful lot easier to let Dromio do the hard work for you. It did help me look more carefully at the things I was deliberately noting, but often the actual transcribing took a back bench to the coding. Hopefully with practice this won’t happen but for now, thank god for Dromio.

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The end result of my coding. V.a.619: Receipt book of Margaret Baker page 101 and 102

Accent in Transcription

When it comes to reading, many students, and indeed many people in general, can definitely say they are pretty well practised. When it comes to reading texts from several centuries back, however, there are far fewer that are versed in the art. And it is something of an art. Just as the painter must learn the brush strokes, and the many details of creating his or her masterpiece, the historian must learn how to read once again, almost as though it was for the first time.

 

Perhaps this is something that can be sympathised with, by a painter who has lost use of his right hand, and now must learn with his left. Many of the practises are still the same, but both the painter and the historian must tackle the problem from a different angle, and learn the habits once again. After all, some of the language used, alongside spellings that might seem alien to the modern reader, must be adopted by the historian, in order to truly understand what is being written in a text, and what the words truly mean.

 

We all have our own struggles with transcribing documents of an archaic nature, but perhaps, rather than railing off several issues with the task of transcribing itself, it would be better to simply conclude that manuscripts are occasionally difficult to read, even in modern English. The fact that the language in the texts historians tackle routinely is different in many ways simply exacerbates this issue, up until the printing press is more widely in use, or documents are readily and conveniently transcribed on the internet, easily accessed by the modern historian. However, the issues with the language often make me note the similarities, too.

 

It is easily understood, on the most part, why modern English is constructed on the page as it is. A single, uniform type allows persons from wherever in the country, and even the world, to understand the text. This draws attention to the fact that early modern societies did not have such a globalised language to ascribe to, and many individuals would not know life far outside the county within which they were born and raised. I’ve often wondered if the English language is perhaps the most diversely spoken in the world. There seems to me to be more variation in the spoken accent ranging from the south – for example, my home county of Suffolk – to Scotland – for example, Edinburgh – than there is ranging from the East coast of the United States to the West coast. This difference in accent is not perceived in modern written text, due to the adoption of the standardised English language. From this post, I could as easily be from Ipswich as from Edinburgh.

 

And yet, in the texts of early modern England and Scotland, one can almost hear the accent come through the page. The word is written phonetically, in a language that could be easily understood by those in your locality, but perhaps more difficult to understand for a very distant reader. Of course, I’m not assuming that it would be so difficult to read a Scotsman’s book as it would be to read one in French, but there does seem to be a discernible difference. Whilst I could likely read a text from my county, or those surrounding in Essex and Norfolk with a degree of ease – assuming I’m given some legible handwriting – the meaning of words may take a little more concentration, as well as the way in which language is used. After all, it can take a bit of effort to simply translate a Tweet, written by a Northerner.

 

To conclude this post, I would like to suggest what I consider to be at least a contributing factor in why the modern English language developed, and was standardised. Most writing their manuscripts, be they family recipe books or anything else, often did not expect their work to see outside their own family, and friends. They almost certainly did not expect their work to be broadcast across the nation, and it’s perhaps more than doubtful that they thought historians would look at their pages with such interest, as we do. Therefore, the phonetic language and the implied knowledge of the locality makes sense, when reading these texts. When methods of disseminating knowledge with ease came into being, and were more accessible to the people, perhaps a standard form of English was required, to allow the knowledge of Suffolk to be learned in Edinburgh, and elsewhere. Of course, this is likely also the case across the world. I don’t claim to be knowledgeable in the regional variations of accent in other countries to any extent, but I would guess that any phonetic differences in the written word fizzled out at around the same time as the written word gained the ability to be spread with more ease and haste.

My first Transcribathon!

By Abbie Burnett

Before I became a student of the Digital Recipe Books Project, six short weeks ago, I was barely aware of what transcription was, let alone how valuable it could be to me as a historian. So maybe you would consider me unqualified to take part in an annual international Transcribathon of an early modern manuscript, hosted by the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC), and yet on the 9th November 2016 that’s precisely what I did! My first Transcribathon was also only my second experience of transcribing historical manuscripts and as a novice I have learned a lot recently about the skills involved, its difficulties, rewards and uses. 

EMROC’s international Transcribathon is in its second year and has proved hugely popular with participants from all over the world logging on to join in with the project, some groups met to collaborate in person in locations across the globe such as the Folger Shakespeare Library, the University of Essex, the University of Akron, the University of Texas Arlington and the University of North Carolina Charlotte. Whilst others logged on virtually, joining in for quick lunch breaks or dedicating a whole afternoon to the event. Personally I took part for a couple of hours while I was in my flat; helping transcribe a seventeenth century recipe book while in your pyjamas is not to be scoffed at!

Castleton's signature, from From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600.
Castleton’s signature, from From Lady Castleton’s book, Folger Shakespeare Library, V.a.600.

The Transcribathon lasted twelve hours and covered 236 pages from Lady Castleton’s recipe book (V.a.600), and although many participants were those who study early modern history, the history of recipes or who had experience with transcription, the invitation to join in was open to all–no experience necessary! The inclusive nature of the event encouraged an impressive total of 128 transcribers to participate, beating 2015’s Transcribathon total of 93 transcribers, and exceeded in completing a triple-keyed transcription of Lady Castleton’s book. The Transcribathon was a lot of fun and much more exciting than I expected it to be. For me in particular the time limit of twelve hours created excitement as I logged on when it was in its final few hours and so the pressure was on to complete the pages I had selected in that time!

Trying to transcribe accurately but efficiently for an inexperienced transcriber like me was a definitely a hard task, but a challenge I felt I rose to with the help of online courses dedicated to reading old English handwriting, such as a course by the National Archives and one by the University of Cambridge. Especially helpful to me was a website dedicated to apothecaries’ symbols commonly found in medical recipes, which helped familiarise me with the letters and symbols which I found not only in Lady Castleton’s book, but also in Margaret Baker’s recipe book, which we are transcribing in class.

On Twitter and Facebook EMROC was available to offer support and encouragement, and the hashtag #transcribathon was in full effect as virtual transcribers got involved with those on site. This modern edge to history really added to the experience as it gave solitary  transcribers like me an insight of how collaborative and special this event was, I felt like I was part of something unique.

Transcription was first introduced to me in our seminar titled ‘Paleography Lab’, for those who don’t know, paleography is the study of ancient writings and the deciphering and interpreting of historical manuscripts, in class we discussed how paleography and transcription can be used profitably by historians and researchers. At first I had assumed that the main function of transcription was to reproduce a manuscript in a more modern style of handwriting or digitally, thereby making it available to a wider audience and ensuring that information within a manuscript is not lost from history. However within our seminar the group discussion expanded my original views of transcription; it was not simply a reproductive system but also a way for researchers to get a closer reading of a manuscript and understand it or its context on a deeper level than merely paraphrasing it or taking separate random quotes to refer back to.

Transcription, however, like all methods of research, has its flaws. Human errors are common and extremely easy to overlook. I discovered this first-hand; more than twice during the Transcribathon of Lady Grace Castleton’s recipe book, I re-read my completed pages of transcriptions to find that by correcting a letter or a word I changed the whole meaning of the sentence and even the meaning of the recipe.

These revelations brought me a feeling of pride as I knew I was growing more comfortable with Castleton’s handwriting and things were beginning to make sense. For example, when I was on page 74 of her book I corrected  “if some quantity of whitte wine” to “the same quantity of whitte wine“, which made a lot more sense both to me and the recipe. Despite my growing pride and confidence as I found these mistakes and corrected them, I also felt more unsure of myself. How many mistakes had I made and had I corrected them all? I hoped so. Furthermore, transcription can be very time consuming; the close reading of historical manuscripts can be long and drawn out especially when contending with the additional factors of handwritten pieces of work, words spelled phonetically and unstandardised fonts. For historians who take these factors into consideration and make adjustments to deal with them as best as they can with the many online resources available, transcription can be one of the most enjoyable forms of research.

I still consider myself a novice transcriber. However, the experience of the Transcribathon, paired with in class practice of transcription and  seminar discussions, have helped me to take a step in the right direction into becoming an adept transcriber. I have no doubt that it is a skill that needs to be continuously worked on by historians to be able to transcribe almost effortlessly.

If you’re a historian who enjoys getting up close and personal to primary sources, my experiences with transcription tells me it is the method for you–especially for those interested in the study of early modern recipes. As I have learnt from my first Transcribathon, and will continue to discover during my work here on the Digital Recipes Book Project, transcription not only allows you to glean insights into the recipe on the page, but also into the life and times of its author.