Check Please!

In my current project at the SCRC, I have the good fortune of being able to check transcriptions from our Civil War Transcription Project that have recently been uploaded to our Digital Collections database. I am thrilled to be able to participate in this auspicious undertaking. We currently have over 980 documents uploaded, all of which must be transcribed by the hundreds of phenomenal volunteers who donate their time reading and transcribing them. As the transcriptions come in, they are uploaded and subsequently verified by a staff member. Lately, that staff member has been me.

I volunteered at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum during my undergraduate career at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. There, I had the good fortune to try my hand at transcribing Civil War letters for the first time. I can personally vouch for the fact that it is not at all easy! I anticipated awful handwriting, and I was not disappointed, but that is just one facet of what makes transcription difficult. Transcribers are often faced with little-to-no punctuation, non-uniform letter formation, and spelling that is anything but standardized. For some periods during the Civil War, paper was nearly impossible to obtain. To combat this difficulty, many soldiers (and sometimes their loved ones at home) resorted to covering every inch of the paper horizontally, and then turning the letter sideways and continuing to write vertically as well. These letters are often barely legible, and it can be extremely difficult to decidedly determine their contents.

I have probably checked between fifty and one hundred transcriptions of documents thus far this semester, and I am constantly astounded by our volunteers’ collective skill level when it comes to transcription. While some transcribers have done this sort of thing before, others are completely new to the exercise, and yet I have not seen a single transcription that could be described as remotely untrue to the original document. Bearing in mind that some of the authors of these documents do not appear to be using the English alphabet AT ALL, our Civil War Transcription Project volunteers can be proud of their transcribing prowess.

In many cases, clear handwriting implies that the author received several years of formal education, and was therefore given ample opportunities to practice their script. After several hours checking the transcription of a nearly illegible diary, I was thrilled to come across one of Robert E. Lee’s letters. My brain was excited because Robert E. Lee was the author, but my eyes were equally ecstatic that this particular letter was entirely readable with very little effort on my part.

However, if we only transcribed letters there were easy to read, we wouldn’t be telling the whole story, now would we? The Robert E. Lees of the world are very important, but those authors who remain unknown to most of the world have an equally important story to tell. To any and all transcription volunteers who may be reading this, please accept my praise and thanks for a job VERY well done! Thanks to you, researchers the world over will be able to hear what ALL of these authors from their very diverse backgrounds have to say, regardless of how legible their handwriting may, or may not, be.

Hannah Bailey is a graduate student in the Department of History and a 2011-2012 Archives Apprentice in the Special Collections Research Center, Swem Library.