Transcribing for the 1916 Letters Project

As part of the module PG6011 / DH6014 – Digital Skills for Research Postgraduates in the Humanities and Social Sciences, students (of which I was one) were required to transcribe two multi-page letters for the 1916 letters project. The project has uploaded many letters under various categories ranging from the Easter Rising, to art, crime, business, and more. A significant proportion of the letters were already in progress by the time I searched for my first “virgin” letter, a two-page letter from J. de Longchamps to Sir Neville Chamberlain. The transcription process is one form of crowdsourcing, a term mostly attributed to Jeff Howe:

[C]rowdsourcing represents the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call. This can take the form of peer-production (when the job is performed collaboratively), but is also often undertaken by sole individuals. The crucial prerequisite is the use of the open call format and the large network of potential laborers.  (

While my motivation for the transcription is clear (it is part of a mandatory assessment for the PG6011 module), I have to wonder about the motivation behind others who are prepared to give of their time to transcribe letters, some of which are almost indecipherable. One theoretic framework I have explored is the Serious Leisure Perspective (SLP) (Elkington and Stebbins 2014). At a basic level SLP has three forms: serious pursuits; casual leisure; and project-based leisure. If someone was dedicated to the transcription of historic documents as an amateur, hobbyist, or volunteer, then they might be said to be involved in serious leisure (a “serious pursuit”). If someone is funded in some way to do the project (a grant, as part of their job, etc.), then they might be said to be engaged in devotee work (also a “serious pursuit”) – work that seems more like play. If someone does the activity for purely hedonistic reasons, then it might be categorized as casual leisure. Those involved in serious leisure are more likely to be skilled than those engaged in the more short-term and gratifying casual leisure. Project-based leisure doesn’t seem to be as applicable to transcription projects like 1916 letters or Transcribe Bentham.

While a keen eye can help decipher seemingly cryptic handwriting, context is vital too. For example, one of the letters I transcribed (4 pages long) related to the First World War. Had I not known this context, then the address at the top of the letter would have been difficult – B. E. F., for example; I had a small doubt about the E … surely an A would make more sense for British Armed Forces. It turns out BEF is an initialization for British Expeditionary Forces, which you don’t hear in much use now.

I also needed to do some investigative work when trying to decipher illegible handwriting. For example, I had what looked like “Hd. Qrs. 10y Rode.” Obviously the first two bits are short for Head Quarters, but the rest? I dug deeper and did a search for “Major Terence Duffin Regiment”, suspecting this was the head quarters of a particular regiment that he was assigned to. I discovered the “Guide to the manuscript sources for the study of the First World War in the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland” and there he was, a staff officer with 107 Brigade. So “10y Rode.” was “107 Bde.”

As my transcription continued, I came to realize that what was a mandatory exercise was morphing into “casual leisure”; I was getting instant payback – encountering a Sir Neville Chamberlain and for a moment being baffled as to how the future prime minister of the UK could have been an inspector general in Ireland – only to delve deeper and discover he was someone else; reading about the life of an officer in the trenches of WWI, his concern for those back home including one home broken up by transcription. My inner historian, amateurish as he is, was awakened and I found myself going beyond the letters and into the archives to build further context and to research archaic references. I now feel part of a wider community of transcribers and part of the larger 1916 project that will be so prominent in the media next year. Will I progress from casual leisure to serious leisure, with respect to crowdsourced transcriptions? Probably not. It can be a frustrating experience and I was slightly guilty of cherry picking letters I knew I could transcribe – I went for a middle ground where there was handwriting, but 90%+ was immediately readable. However, I can understand the attraction for those that would get more serious, given the wonder of discovery that follows.

Additional References

Elkington, S. and Stebbins, R.A. (2014.) The Serious Leisure Perspective: An Introduction, Oxon, UK: Routledge.


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