Teachers, students, academics, writers, family researchers, sailors, and the just-plain-curious… our team of volunteer transcribers at MarineLives come from diverse walks of life. We are taking this time at the end of the calendar year to reflect on our successful transcription programmes in 2014, and to show our gratitude to the associates who made it all possible.
This is the third in an occasional series of posts, in which we’ve asked some of our associates to reflect on their experiences with the HCA corpus. Katherine Parker is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. She is currently writing her dissertation entitled “Toward a more ‘perfect knowledge’: British geographic knowledge and South Seas exploration in the eighteenth century.” She worked alongside Colin Greenstreet, Dr. Philip Hnatkovich, and other members of the MarineLives group during the summer of 2014 over a period of twelve weeks.
I first heard of the MarineLives project in 2013, when they set up a PhD forum to review their project to digitize High Court Admiralty documents. I am a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh, completing a dissertation on the creation of geographic knowledge about the Pacific in the long eighteenth century. Some of the main actors in my study of exploration and print culture are Admiralty officials and Royal Navy officers, thus the MarineLives project piqued my interests.
On summer research trips to London in 2011 and 2012, I had looked at a few HCA documents and knew that the cases recorded in them offered rich material for social, economic, and naval history. Over the course of several skype meetings, I and other PhD students got to give our opinions about the proposed platform and methodology for transcription. Working with a team created a strong community aspect to the project from the beginning; I have always been impressed by the inclusiveness and openness that drives MarineLives. Also, it was refreshing to have my opinion valued as a PhD student, as sometimes that stage in one’s education is isolating and transitional—you are not yet qualified as an expert, but also not unknowledgeable about certain fields.
The value MarineLives placed on the voices of the PhD forum made me want to participate further, even though the works being transcribed were not strictly within the chronological bounds of my dissertation project. Thus, when the summer transcription project was created, I jumped at the opportunity to use paleographic and transcription skills I had gained after a year in London archives on a Social Sciences Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship (2013-14).
Writing styles change over time, just like clothing and furniture styles. Thus, the letters inscribed within HCA volumes from the mid-seventeenth century posed a challenge for me, as I am used to the fluid, upright cursive (often written by a trained scribe or clerk) of the mid-eighteenth-century Admiralty. I came to enjoy the challenge of squinting at the digital pages in front of me, willing the words to make sense, filling in paragraphs slowly until suddenly they all made sense. Beyond the joys and frustrations of transcription, I also enjoyed working within a team environment, wherein each week the other members of my group discussed our progress via skype. My team was diverse, including academics, computer programmers, software developers, and retired professionals. Such a group underlines the power and importance of history to a broad audience; it is not a subject for the elite white tower of university study, but one for the streets; or more appropriately it is not a subject for restricted libraries, but for the open pages of the internet.
The digital aspect of MarineLives is my final point of interest. Digital humanities, digitization of sources, online museum exhibits—these are the history platforms of the future. As a person interested in, yet not particularly proficient in, educational technology, the MarineLives transcription summer project offered a soft landing to the leap into digital work. It was also gratifying to contribute to a piece of work that will democratize history research, eventually allowing students around the world to access documents that were limited previously to archival researchers. The MarineLives project does more than provide a digital product, it also trains and nurturers those involved with it. I am glad to count myself as someone who has benefited from my participation and hope the project continues to grow in the future.