Center for Archival Collections
August 2005: Volume 24, Number 2
When students in an American Civil War course were permitted to earn extra credit for transcribing soldiers' letters from our collection, the staff of the Center for Archival Collections saw an opportunity. Our manuscript collections of Civil War era materials are a rich resource of primary documents and have provided historians with fresh perspectives on the conduct of that war, notably in Peter Cozzen's book, This Terrible Sound: The Battle of Chickamauga (1992). As a public institution, we encourage the research use of our collections by scholars, the public, and students. This project allowed us to make a large number of items available on our website. We wanted to find out how a large transcription project might be handled, and find out what researchers' response might be.
Primary source materials are exciting to work with. As the semester progressed, more students arrived to try their hand at transcribing letters, drawn here by the stories their friends told about the materials they were working with. Students submitted their transcripts to their instructor and to the CAC staff for editing. Once the transcripts were edited for accuracy, they were prepared for the web.
In fact, we did learn a great deal from this project, and it brought a number of concerns to our attention. As one-of-a-kind documents, these materials are particularly vulnerable to wear and tear from over-use. Interest in the Civil War remains high among research institutions and private collectors, and the monetary value of these documents is increasing, so security is also important. Transcripts allow researchers to study the content of the documents while the originals remain secure. Novice researchers like undergraduate college students have the benefit of using the letters' content without having to struggle through the difficulties of deciphering handwriting, which is an acquired skill. Mounting the transcripts on the web allows researchers world-wide access to the information.
The students participating in this project experienced every frustration of working with original documents. Text was difficult to read because of faded ink and colored or aging paper, and tears or holes in the letters obliterated words or whole paragraphs. The handwriting was cramped or florid, and the spelling and punctuation was irregular at best. Marginal notes and deleted or added words were difficult to convey in transcript. The vocabulary and idioms used by the soldiers were different from today's usage, and references to 1860s events were obscure. It was essential that the student's final product be proof-read and edited by CAC staff before it was linked on the web, and it remains our procedure to have a second person carefully proofread all text before it is made public.
The response to the accessibility of the web transcriptions was immediate and very positive. Our reference queries increased and a number of scholars contacted us for more information about our collections as they prepared publications or conference papers. We decided to continue this project and expand it to include correspondence from other wars and other manuscripts of interest. Meanwhile, other online access projects were taking shape around the nation and the state.
The Ohio Memory Project, "An Online Scrapbook of Ohio History," uses what may be an ideal technique for dealing with manuscripts on the web. The original document is scanned and can be viewed as an image showing its original appearance. Linked to this image is a transcription which uses the same spelling and punctuation--even the same line breaks--as the original. Several selections from the CAC's holdings were contributed to the Ohio Memory Project following this format. However, with our limited staff and equipment, we have decided to concentrate first on creating readable transcriptions, and hope one day to provide online scans of the original documents.
When we create a transcript, our goal is to make the text of the document as accessible as possible while retaining the original spelling, punctuation, and underlining. The transcriber's alterations of the text, like inserting a period at the end of a sentence or correcting a badly-muddled misspelling, are indicated in square brackets. [.] While most Civil War letter-writers did not use much profanity in their letters or discuss sex in explicit detail, they did occasionally use words or express attitudes which we find offensive today, especially regarding race, gender roles, and sectionalism. These words and attitudes are retained in the transcription, just as are the poor spelling and grammar because they accurately reflect the content of the originals and are themselves a worthwhile subject of study.
We have established a layout pattern for most letters. All lines are pushed to the left margin, but the line and page breaks of the original are not reproduced, except in the case of poetry. These conventions allow for faster encoding of the documents. Transcripts are then linked to the finding aid of their collection and can be read individually or in sequence.
The response to these transcripts continues to be extremely positive. Use statistics for our website demonstrate that the Civil War manuscript collections and their transcripts are heavily and consistently used, and we feel certain that the correspondence from more recent wars will be just as interesting to researchers in the years to come.
--Lee N. McLaird
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