XML Version
Das Gupta, V., Rooney, N., Schreibman, S. (2016). Notes from the Transcription Desk: Modes of engagement between the community and the resource of the Letters of 1916. In Digital Humanities 2016: Conference Abstracts. Jagiellonian University & Pedagogical University, Kraków, pp. 476-477.
Notes from the Transcription Desk: Modes of engagement between the community and the resource of the Letters of 1916

Notes from the Transcription Desk: Modes of engagement between the community and the resource of the Letters of 1916

The Letters of 1916 is Ireland’s first public humanities project. It collects, digitises, transcribes, encodes, and makes available through its electronic platform epistolary documents written between 1st November 1915 and 31st October 1916. The year 1916 was one of transition for Ireland: between its involvement in the Great War and the rise of militant nationalism, the country was divided by sentiment, separated by ideals. 2016 sees the centennial commemoration of the Easter Rising 1 across Ireland. A more complex interpretation of the events that transpired in Easter week 1916 has entered national consciousness and with it the interest in the smaller and more personal accounts of those caught up in the ensuing violence. The rhetoric of the letter presents personal perspectives and individual memory traces; the collected letters provide an insight into those fragmentary stories that, inspected together, constitute a collective consciousness. Letters are shared experiences that connect people across geographical spaces. 2 The unique personal perspective of the epistolary form challenges the perceptions of established history, questioning the role of memory and the acts of commemoration that this era suggests.

Since Jeff Howe’s coining of the term ‘crowdsourcing’ in 2006 (Howe 2006), a number of pioneering projects have provided legitimacy and validity to the process. 3 The Letters of 1916 considers crowdsourcing in the widest possible sense of the term; the processes of collection, transcription, and curation are done through public engagement. The focus of this paper rests on the volunteer community associated with the project 4 and provides an inspection of the levels of its engagement, a study of its interests and motivations, and how future projects can adapt this investigation into community interaction. Sharon Leon, discussing her observations while working on the Papers of the War Department 1784-1800,  identifies and categorises these motivations into six fields: (a) an interest in history, (b) a sense of civic duty, (c) a specific point of scholarly research, (d) engagement based on genealogical and family research questions, (e) educational assignments, and (f) curiosity about how the transcription tool and process works (Leon 2014). This paper extends these assumptions, inspecting specifically the affect of the epistolary form on the transcriber. The topical nature of this project raises questions beyond the ones that Leon raises.

The investigation in this paper traces the manner in which the community engages with the content, a hundred years since they were written, not merely as historical documents but as individual memory traces that express personal sentiments. The centenary creates a renewed vigour in the study of these documents and the paper questions if the engagement with these letters produce a more nuanced understanding of this conflicted time. As Leon points out, one of the driving forces of community transcription lies in an active interest in scholarly research. This paper attempts to understand this very engagement in the Letters of 1916 project; some of the letters in the resource, particularly those received from personal collections, have been unavailable to the public until this point. Does the possibility of discovering these little stories and personal narratives that are weaved within the politics of the time, create an interest that emphasises the novelty of discovery? As the transcriber actively engages and researches these documents, do her motivations lie in the possibility of unearthing new knowledge?

A data-driven examination of transcriber-activity, as evidenced in the project, suggests that individual members of the community create self-fashioned roles. The transcriber who reads and re-authors these letters, the encoder who attributes TEI 5 markup to the transcribed text, and the researcher who provides contextual information for the letter are all employed in the production of these electronic documents but their engagement is at different levels. This paper attempts to understand this division of roles based on the modes of engagement that are apparent. Re-authoring of these letters raises another question: as Barthes suggests, the relationship between the reader and the writer is complex and deeply problematic (1977). Does the re-authoring of these letters create a deeper investment in the narrative? This investment is reiterated when we consider the private emails exchanged between members of the Letters of 1916 volunteer network and the project staff where concerns are raised over the urgency, validity, and authority of the initial transcription; the accuracy and the model of the transcription becomes a point of contention between the members of the community.

This paper considers the proposed questions in three stages and at three levels to gain a clearer understanding of the role of the transcriber within the Letters of 1916 project. In the first instance, a statistical inspection of the metadata for the transcribed letters provides an examination of the volume and the rate of transcription over the course of the project. The engagement of the individual transcriber with specific themes 6 within the collection is revealed in the process; this mode of investigation aids in viewing the community, not as a homogenous cluster, but as individuals with specific interests and different points of engagement. The visualizations generated from these analyses illustrate the interests of the community at a macro level. In the second instance, the Letters of 1916 volunteer network is approached with a focused survey. This ongoing survey presents the second phase of coordinated feedback that this project records. The questionnaire is designed to cover a range of topics that both reinforce the results of the statistical analysis and ask questions that lie outside the scope of data-driven inquiry. The focused design of the questionnaire is informed by the preliminary phase and attempts to tease out the motivations that lie at the heart of crowd-sourced projects such as the Letters of 1916. In the third and final instance, the most-prolific transcribers 7 in the project are approached for interviews regarding their role in the process of transcription. These interviews are detailed and provide a closer study of the desires of the community. The methods utilised in this paper move from a macro to a micro level, from the data to the individual, in order to derive a concrete and axiomatic base to study the modes of engagement that the Letters of 1916 project and, perhaps, all crowdsourced projects have.

The success of a crowdsourced project lies in creating effective engagement between the community and the resource. This paper provides an investigation of the motivations and the desires of individuals that drive these forms of public history projects forward. The topical nature of this research, combined with the affect of epistolary documents, creates a unique opportunity for this study, a model for future projects to further develop their volunteer community, and the critical foundations on which future study of community transcriptions may be based.

  1. Altman, J. G. (1982). Epistolarity: Approaches to a Form. Columbus: Ohio State University Press.
  2. Barthes, R. (1977). Death of the Author. In Heath, S (tr.), Image, Music, Text, New York: Hill and Wang.
  3. Caulfield, M. (1995). The Easter Rebellion: The outstanding narrative history of the 1916 Rising in Ireland. Dublin: Gill & McMillan Ltd.
  4. Howe, J. (2006). The Rise of Crowdsourcing. WIRED. Available at: http://www.wired.com/2006/06/crowds/ [Accessed on 27 Oct. 2015].
  5. Leon, S. M. (2014) Build Analyse and Generalise: Community Transcription of the Papers of the War Department and the Development of Scripto. In Ridge, M. (ed.), Crowdsourcing Our Heritage. Dorchester: Ashgate.
  6. Papers of the War Department. (2012). Wardepartmentpapers.org. Available at: http://wardepartmentpapers.org/ [Accessed 27 Oct. 2015].
  7. TEI: Text Encoding Initiative (2013). tei-c.org. Available at: http://tei-c.org/index.xml/ [Accessed on 27 Oct. 2015].
  8. UCL Transcribe Bentham. (2016). Blogs.ucl.ac.uk. Available at: http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/transcribe-bentham/ [Accessed 27 Oct. 2015].
  9. What’s on the menu? (2016). Menus.nypl.org. Available at: http://menus.nypl.org/ [Accessed 27 Oct. 2015].

The Easter Rising was an armed insurrection launched by a minority of Irish nationalists against the British Empire in 1916. The Rising was contained to Dublin and suppressed following a week of fighting. It is seen as the genesis of the later Irish War of Independence. For further reading see, for instance, Max Caulfield’s The Easter Rebellion (1998).


Janet Gurkin Altman, contemplatig about the form of the letter, contends that while letters connect two geographical points they also serve as a bridge between the sender and the receiver. The epistolary author can either choose to emphasisne either the bridge or the distance (1982).


Since Howe’s definition of the term there have been several pioneering project based on crowdsourcing. For instance, see Transcribing Bentham, Papers of the War Department 1874-1800 and What’s on the Menu?


As of October 2015 there are 1159 registered users on the Letters of 1916 site. These users transcribe, on average, 192,409 characters a month.


The Text Encoding Initiative (TEI) is a consortium which develops and maintains a standard for the representation of texts in their electronic forms. For further information see http://www.tei-c.org/index.xml


Letters can belong to one or multiple themes including The Easter Rising, World War I, Family Life, Love Letters, Official Documents, Politics, the Irish Question and more.


Each month the Letters of 1916 Project generates a list of “top” transcribers. This list is determined by the number of characters a specific individual has transcribed in that time frame.