Can you read early modern English? VCU-Folger Transcribathon lauded as success

December 3, 2015

Nearly 100 members of the VCU and RVA communities turned out on a sunny Friday afternoon in November to work on computers in a windowless room transcribing 17th-century manuscripts handwritten in early modern English. Event organizers were impressed.

This hands-on digital humanities work involved students, teaching faculty and staff, librarians, community members and scholars from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington. Co-sponsoring with the VCU Department of English, the VCU Humanities Research Center and the Folger, VCU Libraries showcased its commitment to collaborative learning through digital creation.

Transcribathons – developed by the Folger – are held around the nation, allowing students and scholars alike to examine scanned versions of rare manuscripts held by the Folger and work with teams to decipher and type up in legible text the often difficult handwriting from the time of the Renaissance. The Folger's holdings of such manuscripts include letters, polemics and copies of poetry circulated among friends, and they number in the many thousands. "We don't know what's in them yet," Heather Wolfe, Ph.D., curator of manuscripts and archivist, remarked.

The Folger has established the Early Modern Manuscripts Online (EMMO) project ( to make a variety of rare manuscripts from the Folger Shakespeare Library's premier collection available to users for free via an easy, searchable website with high-quality images and consistent digital transcriptions of letters, diaries, wills, coats of arms, literary pieces, recipe books, miscellanies and more. At Transcribathon sessions, beginners and experts work together, comparing notes and versions of the original handwriting using the EMMO menu of tools available at the website. "What you will do today matters," Wolfe told everyone at the VCU event, emphasizing the role of collaboration for digital scholarship and the lasting access to crucial knowledge that such efforts achieve for researchers across the world. "The Transcribathon," said Humanities Collections Librarian Kevin Farley, Ph.D., "aligns perfectly with the advancement of digital scholarship at VCU Libraries – an openness for all who wish to participate in a collaborative learning and creating environment." VCU participants worked on portions of two manuscripts from the 17th century and encoded them using tags in XML in an easy-to-use interface.

After welcoming remarks from Farley, attendees received background context from VCU faculty Joshua Eckhardt and Claire M. L. Bourne (VCU English) and instructions on tackling the handwriting from Wolfe and Paul Dingman, Ph.D., of the Folger. Then everyone set to work – from noon to 4 p.m. Many wanted to stay beyond 4 and continued to try to figure out those last little squiggles before reluctantly letting go of the mysterious Elizabethan jottings. Not only were the attendees engaged, but attendance exceeded expectations by leaps and bounds. More than 90 people came through the doors – students, faculty and staff from other VCU departments, librarians and representatives from Agecroft Hall, the Virginia Historical Society and other cultural institutions. The venue was filled beyond capacity, and attendees spilled over into nearby study rooms.

In fact, attendance was a new record for transcribathons. The Folger Shakespeare Library has held several transcribathons to date, including at the University of Virginia, the University of Michigan and the University of Pennsylvania. The Folger gave high praise for VCU's good attendance and also for the facilities, the support of the library staff and the excitement of the students.

"Thousands of early modern manuscripts exist. Very few have been photographed in their entirety. And very few of the complete image sets that have been produced are freely available," said co-organizer Joshua Eckhardt, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of English. "Some manuscripts have been described, but very few of them have been described very thoroughly or very well. And, of those few manuscripts that have been both photographed and described, only a tiny fraction has been transcribed all the way through."

"The purpose of this kind of activity is to make difficult-to-read manuscripts accessible to and searchable by scholars, teachers and students," said co-organizer Claire Bourne, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences. "The work of those participating in the VCU transcribathon will be in the service of future scholarship and learning."

The transcribathons also serve to increase awareness of the Folger Shakespeare Library's valuable holdings, arguably the best collection of early modern English manuscripts in the United States, Eckhardt said.

Image: Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.103, fol. 3v / Content: University Public Affairs

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