The typical first awkwardly formed question is, “A transcriba…what, wait, what is it, again?” (Answer: “Transcribathon, an event running from noon to midnight in which we transcribe and encode manuscripts, the very first experimental event of its kind for Early Modern Manuscripts Online.”) The next question following fast on its heels is usually, “Why would anyone want to do that for twelve hours?”
Well, over 35 transcribers, many of whom had never tried their hands or eyes at early modern paleography before, could tell you: because it’s fun! Part of that enjoyment no doubt comes from the satisfaction of puzzling out just what word a particularly strange-looking collection of letters could possibly be and another part arises from glimpsing into the thoughts of people living four hundred years ago.
Also, cake was involved.
Of course, the word transcribathon appeared somewhere in the first-year plan of the Early Modern Manuscripts Online, or EMMO, project (drafted a year ago), but how that undefined and somewhat mysterious word would actually translate into reality had to be determined. Through emails and phone calls between staff at the Folger Shakespeare Library and the Kislak Center at the University of Pennsylvania a date and location were set: December 4th on the top floor of Penn’s Van Pelt Library. Manuscripts were selected: one from the Folger’s collection, the Smith family poetical miscellany, and one from Penn’s, A dream of bounden dutie.
Some wondered if the proposed 12 hours transcribing these works would be too long, but the half-a-day stretch was confirmed, travel plans booked, pizza orders made.
A handful of Folger EMMO staff made the trip up to Philly to join their Kislak center hosts at the new Orrery Pavilion, and just as the clocks reached noon, students, both undergraduate and graduate (and a few postdocs) started to arrive. The first transcribathon had begun!
The selected manuscripts had been digitized for easy viewing, and the Folger also brought along Dromio, our online transcription and encoding tool. Dromio has been used in Folger paleography classes, but this was its first broader public debut. The Penn transcribathon served as an opportunity not only to promote paleography to a larger audience but also to test the interface with a number of users who have differing levels of—and sometimes no—experience in transcribing manuscripts. Seeing how participants navigate their way through Dromio and handle its features at this early stage provides valuable feedback for development. Since our programmer came along, we could even make updates and add functionality during the event, (e.g., having the manuscript image appear in the collation screen). Our plan is to eventually release Dromio for others to use.
After a very brief tutorial, participants picked manuscript pages with accompanying images from the online menu and started the process.
Some participants stayed for only an hour or two. Others stayed for almost the entire twelve hours or left for a class and then returned.
In either case, as soon as a participant finished transcribing and coding a manuscript page, he or she would walk up to the back wall of the Orrery Pavilion, write down the folio/page number completed and his/her name on a Post-It note, and then stick that slip of paper to the tracking wall.
Some participants wrote and stuck their notes with gusto, perhaps reflecting the difficulty and corresponding satisfaction felt upon reaching the end of the page.
Members of the EMMO team and Kislak Center staff worked on transcriptions and coding as well as answered questions and introduced new arrivals to paleography, our encoding process, and Dromio.
Four “sprints” of progressing difficulty occurred during the transcribathon. These sprints were contests in which any participants who wished to join would open a particular manuscript image (held in reserve until the sprint) and transcribe as much of it as he or she could in 15 minutes. While a large digital clock counted down the minutes, a hush fell over the Orrery Pavilion as the sprinters worked up until the very last second. Competitive paleography is not for the faint of heart, but everyone present emerged apparently unscathed. Scoring followed a simple formula: ten points for each line completed with one point taken away for each transcription error. We went over the results together using Dromio’s collation feature, relying on the honor system for tabulating final grades. Prizes for winners ranged from Folger exhibition catalogs to bottles of wine for the 9 PM sprint (the latter only released to a winner who could prove legal age).
Having multiple transcriptions/encodings of a manuscript page is key to our workflow in EMMO since we plan to use automatic comparisons of independent transcriptions to help us arrive at a final version efficiently. Any discrepancies would be resolved by a more experienced user, and all of the the approved transcriptions will get some checking by expert paleographers.
The day did not go off without a few hitches, as is to be expected with an experiment. Early in the event, some users noticed lines of transcription appearing out of order in Dromio. Luckily, we had Mike Poston, the designer/developer of Dromio, in attendance, and he was able to correct the issue while Paul scrambled to collect the transcriptions from the first sprint via copying/pasting and deliver them to Heather to score the old-fashioned (manuscript) way with printouts, paper, and pencil. This line order issue was quickly fixed, and a simple reload by participants had everyone working with the updated version in short order.
The number of participants ebbed and flowed as the afternoon transformed into evening, reaching a peak of activity between 6 PM and 8 PM (with a short break for much needed pizza and cake). Sighs, exclamations, and laughter often rang through the pavilion as a transcriber made a discovery, shared a line or two of bawdy text with others, or conferred to figure out a challenging word. Posts on the back wall increased. The running total to date for the transcribathon is 158 pages of the Folger manuscript transcribed at least partially (107 of those completely transcribed) and 85 pages of the Penn manuscript at least partially transcribed (78 of those completely).
Only a smattering of participants remained to the late midnight hour, but those who did transcribed and coded right up to the end. Overheard at 12:02 AM on December 5th: “But I just want to finish this page.”
The folks at Penn are already talking about hosting another transcribathon and perhaps making such events a regular part of the academic calendar. Other transcribathons are in the works at UVa and Maryland in the spring, with yet more locations under discussion. With a little time, the question may well shift from the awkward “Transcriba…what?” to the more quotidian, “Are you going to the transcribathon this semester?”