Having found a notebook with a handwritten list of Roman artefacts from the Savile Collection damaged in the WW2 bombing of Leeds City Museum, in the run up to the 80th anniversary of the Leeds Blitz a project was started to decipher and transcribe the notebook. The call was put out for volunteers, and in this blog Chloë, Gary and Emily share their experience and thoughts on the project.
I joined up wanting to try something new, fill the COVID-19 void and hopefully be useful. Having been a volunteer coordinator in a former life, I was also keen to see how an online project works. Lucy, museum curator and project leader was delighted to have 50+ on the first Zoom call. She hadn’t wanted to turn anyone away, given COVID-19 times. Usually half the volunteers drop out as life gets in the way but not this time! Smaller groups were more manageable, allowing us to collaborate on allocated sections and feel like we were contributing: so important when working with volunteers.
This project lent itself perfectly to the new, online way of life. Brilliant training by colleagues from the Museum and West Yorkshire Archive Service on the palaeography and the history of writing breathed life into fascinating historical documents and these would make excellent public events. But that’s a whole other blog!
Screen-sharing and file-sharing allowed us to collaborate – hooray! In our most recent meeting one volunteer joined in from Poland. Tech wasn’t all wonderful though with bouts of dodgy Wi-Fi and swift muting when my boyfriend’s drum practice started early! Often quite shy, I managed to say a fair bit in one meeting only to discover my mic was broken. I’d been bravely chatting to myself!
Early on in the project a volunteer doing some online digging found The Antiquities from Lanuvium in the Museum at Leeds and Elsewhere. Our notebook closely matched this catalogue. Had we all been recruited for nothing? Was there any point in continuing? Of course there was! It was a useful tool and enabled us to see exactly which items had been damaged in the Blitz as it pre-dated WW2.
As with most volunteering I feel I’ve gained more than I’ve given: a new skill, insight into the workings of Leeds Museums and Galleries, the joy of collaboration and feeling part of something. It turns out COVID-19 has actually helped the museum find a new way of working with volunteers.
Having done some transcription before, I really enjoyed this project, as I could meet people from all different backgrounds and stages of life. Having such a diverse group of people allowed us to get a lot of different perspectives, views and interpretations about what words meant or where they came from. This could have been a dry and unengaging project of transcription, but the fact different people could flesh out aspects like finding the Lanuvium article or researching Roman history or the history of the objects mentioned made the project unique and exciting.
Some of the transcription was made easier by patterns we saw in the writing. Everyone has a unique writing style and spotting patterns helped us in transcribing. However sometimes this also made it difficult. Often we’d confuse some letters, which could then change the whole meaning of the word. Another issue was the author sometimes putting a dot above an ‘e’ that was mistaken for an ‘i’- this caught more than a few of us out.
Not surprisingly, as the document progressed, the writing began to get more and more sloppy (for lack of a better word) as the continual writing took its toll and the author began to get progressively tired with the task.
Although the discovery of the Lanuvium article could have been a negative thing, rendering our progress irrelevant, it was actually a stroke of luck. It sharpened and honed our transcription skills, as we could attempt to do as much as possible in our respective sections, and only when we were stuck then did we check the Lanuvium article as a last resort. This allowed us to cross-reference our attempt and see how close we were. It was also a test as the sections were in a different order in the article but that just meant you felt even more successful when you found it!
Whilst this project has been different to my previous volunteering with the museums by being online, it has been full of opportunities to collaborate with other volunteers. Regular sessions over Zoom to work together on our sections of the document have allowed volunteers to support each other and collaborate on completing the transcription. Although we had set groups and sections to work on, the final session allowed volunteers from different groups to mix and share ideas. The collaborative nature of the project has been unexpected, given that it was virtual, but unexpected in a positive way.
Throughout the process of transcribing the document, there have been many interesting challenges and discoveries. The formation of the letters was usually a good source of discussion due to the ‘k’s that looked like ‘r’s and ‘f’s that looked like ‘g’s. The author of the document had a very elaborate way of forming the letter P!
It wasn’t just the words themselves that proved interesting. Throughout the document there were several diagrams of the objects. However, many of these diagrams appeared to differ greatly in appearance to the actual description!
One of the biggest challenges was once you had an idea on what a word said, it was hard to see anything other than that word even if it was not that word. An example of this can be seen in the image below, originally this word had been transcribed as ‘Scenadid’, which upon further investigation turned out to be ‘Undecorated’.
It is incredibly significant that we have completed this project now. 2021 not only marks the 200 birthday of Leeds Museums and Galleries but 14 and 15 March marked 80 years since the Leeds Blitz!
By Chloë, Emily and Gary, Transcription volunteers