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Communal work at Folger transcribathons creates access to rare materials

April 10, 2017

An image from one of the manuscripts (Folger Shakespeare Library V.a.103, fol. 3v) transcribed at VCU.

One of the emerging and expanding roles of libraries is the creation of scholarship. This work, which adds to the ongoing role of libraries to provide protection, perservation and access to scholarship, is explored in a transcribathon partnership with the respected Folger Shakespeare Library.

In 2015 and 2017, VCU Libraries bought some 100 members of the VCU and RVA communities into James Branch Cabell Library to work on transcribing 17th-century manuscripts handwritten in early modern English.  

These hands-on digital humanities projects 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 nationwide. Students and scholars examine scanned versions of rare manuscripts held by the Folger. They 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 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 at one VCU event. 

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 one 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.

Attendance at the VCU events is high. The Folger Shakespeare Library has held several transcribathons, 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.

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