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!
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.
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.