Our team: Reflections from the 2014 Summer Programme (Part 3)

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.

Moll_SouthSea

Herman Moll, A New & Exact Map of the Coast, Countries and Islands within the Limits of the South Sea Company (1711)

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. Shakerley_1370_JPG 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.

Parker

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.

Our team: Reflections from the Summer Programme 2014 (Part 2)

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 second in an occasional series of posts, in which we’ve asked some of our associates to reflect on their experiences with the HCA corpus. Thomas Davies is a third year history undergraduate student currently studying at Bath Spa University. He worked alongside Dr. Philip Hnatkovich and other members of the MarineLives group during the summer of 2014 over a period of twelve weeks.

Davies_picture

This year I took part in the MarineLives summer transcription programme, which I was introduced to through Bath Spa as a third-year module. It was a twelve-week course in which we transcribed a series of documents from the records of the English High Court of Admiralty in 1660.

There were some challenging aspects of the programme — the main being distance. This was because we worked as a team and half of the team were based in the United Kingdom and half were based in the United States, so we had to be aware of time differences and that we would be unable to meet in person. To combat this we used email, Google Hangouts, and Skype and made good use of all the resources available to stay in touch when working on the documents together. We had weekly calls to discuss team business. The weekly calls helped because we would talk about the problems or issues we faced weekly and how the transcriptions were to be presented covering topics such as layout or abbreviations.

I found certain tasks I did really helped me throughout the module. I went to Bath archive before the programme began to get some practise and some tips from an expert who was used to working with these documents all the time. The archive also allowed me firsthand experience of being around these documents myself. I would ask for two or three documents and I would then try and read them or transcribe them and any words I struggled with ask for help (I needed help most of the time at this point) but the employee there gave me some great pointers and it adjusted my eyes to the style of writing. The background articles I was sent in the beginning weeks of the course also gave the work we were to be doing some more meaning as I understood why we were doing them and I had more knowledge surrounding sailors and what they faced in legal battles and also the language they would use on the ships.

Sandys_Detail_JPG

The biggest challenge I faced in the transcription itself was becoming accustomed to the peculiar writing and distinguishing letters. Some letters look very similar, such as f’s and s’s, r’s and c’s not to mention t’s and l’s. I began transcribing effectively by taking it slow and working out the letters individually instead of looking at the word as a whole as we do with modern writing. I found this approach to be very effective.

MarineLives created a Bath Spa student section that helped me significantly, showing templates of letters and the different forms they have. This allowed me to tackle the many different writing styles the clerks used. Once I was able to distinguish between letters more clearly with considerable practise, I found I could transcribe enough of the page to get a good idea of what was being said in the documents. Then, I could alter words that did not fit within the context of the deposition, or using the context as a guideline as to what certain words should be.

Welch_SigDetail_JPG

The module has shown me how interesting history can be when you unveil it yourself. I would recommend it to any student looking to do a flexible module over the summer or anyone what wants to learn how to transcribe in a friendly, welcoming environment. Studying with MarineLives allows you to research at a deeper level by extracting information yourself so you know the transcription is reliable because you have done it. It gives a deeper sense of satisfaction when compared to using other people’s statistics or information in a book because you get the first-hand knowledge.

A final comment is that no other historian has touched this document so you feel like a pioneer taking your own path and discovering new information about the past, which is particularly rewarding especially if the document holds interesting information. I also gained knowledge about the seventeenth century that I feel I would not have gained through reading books about that time period. You have to read pages from that time to understand, for example, shortened words, slang terms of the time, and the style of language.