The Collation

Research and Exploration at the Folger

EMMO: advancing and expanding

During the last few months, the Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) project has been gathering strength and reaching farther both inside the Folger Shakespeare Library and outside to individuals and organizations. These actions have translated into the passing of several key milestones, and members of the EMMO team are very excited about what this progress promises for 2015 and beyond.

The Advanced Early Modern English Paleography Workshop, sponsored by EMMO and the Folger Institute in mid-December 2014 was a great success, with 16 early modern scholars from near and far joining together for a whirlwind week of transcribing activity. Heather Wolfe and I carefully considered many of the manuscripts in the Folger’s early modern collection to find works fitting for the participants’ research interests but also sufficiently challenging for everyone involved—in other words, not just secretary hand but hard secretary hand! 

While some lines of transcription were definitely taxing, as you can see from some examples below, the experts in this group rose to the demands and maybe even relished the chance to exercise their paleographic prowess. (Our thanks to the Folger’s Photography and Digital Imaging department for digitizing the 20 or so manuscripts on a rush schedule so that participants could tackle them.)

a manuscript miscellany in secretary hand
A miscellany of jests and poems (X.d.177, fol. 3v-4r)
a manuscript miscellany in secretary hand
Henry Oxinden’s miscellany (V.b.110, pp 468-469)
a screenshot of John Ward's diary being transcribed in Dromio (V.a.284, p. 1)
a screenshot of John Ward’s diary being transcribed in Dromio (V.a.284, p. 1)

Participants in the workshop used the enhanced Dromio (see the screenshot above), the Folger’s collation-transcription software tool, to encode as well as transcribe the manuscript pages, providing an excellent opportunity for testing the interface and also making changes to it based on feedback from high-level users. The addition of buttons (and corresponding tags) for macrons and catchwords came directly from requests made by paleographers who considered these elements of scholarly importance. Vetting each other’s transcriptions was another important aspect of the workshop. Double-blind transcriptions in Dromio were performed along with verification checking in order to have at least two sets of experienced eyes read a page before designating it approved. The final tally for the workshop week was 189 pages completely transcribed, with 111 of those vetted for accuracy.

To put those numbers in perspective, the EMMO project has roughly 34,500 manuscript images currently in the identified data set, that is, manuscript pages from the Folger collection that are in English, dated 1500–1700, and have been digitized in Luna. To date, a little over one thousand of those have been fully transcribed and encoded (about 3%). As you can see from the genre breakdown of EMMO manuscript pages shown below, newsletters, miscellanies, and letters constitute large slices of our identified manuscript collection.



There are also lots of genres that are such a small percentage of the whole that they aren’t labeled below, including receipt books, diaries, religious works, horoscopes, legal documents, armorials. Also evident is that many pages lack a specific genre designation, and filling in this gap is another task the EMMO team has undertaken since many people would prefer to know what type of manuscript they are going to transcribe. Through applying information from our finding aids and other Folger sources in the past few months, we have been able to add genre metadata to thousands of otherwise no-genre pages. The work on this continues.

In November, EMMO and the Folger Institute also launched a more informal Practical Paleography series for readers and staff that runs every other week through the end of March 2015. This initiative aims to introduce early modern paleography and XML encoding in a very relaxed atmosphere; no registration is required, and people can attend as many or as few of the one-hour sessions as they wish. We started with learning the variations of letter forms in the early modern alphabet and transcribing some relatively easy italic hands with an “in-the-round” cooperative approach, and each session introduces a new topic.

Response has been excellent so far (we average 14 attendees, with some newcomers each session), and we have quickly progressed to reading secretary hand, working in small teams, and encoding while transcribing. These sessions have not only allowed us to add to the transcriptions we have for EMMO, but give us an opportunity to test our tools. Another new facet of Dromio getting a trial run at Practical Paleography is an externally-facing web version that “PracPaleo” participants can access easily that records who transcribes what.

Building on the foundation of practices and tools developed in these activities, pedagogical partnerships between EMMO and various learning institutions have started to take shape. In early January 2015, I met with Professors Rebecca Laroche (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs) and Jennifer Munroe (University of North Carolina, Charlotte) about using Dromio as a teaching aid in their spring classes and also potentially for the Early Modern Recipes Online Collective (EMROC). Since then, manuscript pages from one of our recipe books (V.a.388) have been transcribed and encoded by students.

Other collaborations are also underway. Scholars at the University of Turku in Finland have expressed interest in EMMO and our approach to semi-diplomatic transcription with XML tags, and we’ll be setting up a project in Dromio later in February for graduate students there to transcribe and encode pages from the Cavendish-Talbot papers (X.d.428) and the Rich family papers (X.d.451). A transcribathon (only seven hours this time, whew!) has been scheduled to take place on March 18th at the University of Virginia, and additional transcribathons later in the year are under discussion for the University of Maryland, here at the Folger, and elsewhere.

Perhaps the largest milestone for EMMO to date, however, is the momentous signing of a contract to create a three-year partnership with Zooniverse, an organization based at the University of Oxford. The EMMO and Zooniverse teams will work closely together to design a state-of-the-art crowdsourcing tool and online tutorial called “Shakespeare’s World.” Developers at Zooniverse have award-winning experience in building easy-to-use websites that involve vast numbers of users in crowdsourcing projects. As an established entity in the field, Zooniverse enjoys a wide membership of interested contributors to such projects. They started by enlisting “citizen scientists” on astrophysics projects such as the popular GalaxyZoo (2007) but have since widened their scope from the sciences to the humanities with projects like Operation War Diary and Ancient Lives. “Shakespeare’s World” will be another major step in that direction, enabling citizen humanists from around the globe to join the effort of transcribing and encoding thousands of early modern manuscripts pages. A beta test version of “Shakespeare’s World” should be ready by summer.


  • Thanks for the update Paul. It sounds like things are moving along nicely! Will the Zooinerse interface utilize Dromio or are they building their own transcription tool?

    • Good question, Dylan. Zooniverse will be working with us to build a new transcribing interface for “Shakespeare’s World” with its own set of features (including a tutorial) specifically geared for crowdsourcing, but there may well be some similarities to Dromio since both utilize TEI-based XML and follow the conventions of semi-diplomatic transcription. Dromio will also continue to develop, of course, e.g., we plan to add more functionality to the collation screen this year. As the two interfaces meet different needs, they will most likely remain distinct while sharing certain elements.

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