HIST2F90: Money & Power in the Atlantic World

Transcription Workshop

Last updated: 2 Oct. 2019

This Week's Big Task

For each Lesson we provide you with a Big Question to think and write about. Workshops are different. In this and all other Workshops you'll have a main activity, a Big Task. For the First Workshop your Big Task is:

Learn how to read and transcribe original, printed eighteenth-century sources about the slave trade.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of this week you should be able to:

Learning Activities

To accomplish your Big Task for the Workshop, you will first:and then use the Transcription Tool in Sakai to:There are Instructions at the end of this webpage.

NOTE from Oct. 2019: The task of writing a summary of your last transcribed section is a new step that was not outlined in the earlier versions of this page.


In the First Module you learned not only about early modern European history, but also about the importance of sources for historians. In the Second Module you will take another step in working with sources from the European past. This step is learning to read early modern books in their original fonts. Once you master this skill a new and expanded world of sources will open up to you.

There are several challenges to reading primary sources from long-past cultures. First and foremost, most if not all of you have noticed that the beliefs of people from the past can seem very strange to us. This makes them challenging to interpret -- and this is a challenge all historians face all the time. "The past," a famous novelist (L.P. Hartley) once said, "is like a foreign country: people did things differently there." The Second Module will introduce you to one of the best examples of this foreignness: slavery. In this First Workshop (the starting exercise for the Module) you will work with several eighteenth-century sources in which authors debate the abolition of the slave trade. These texts will become a major subject of your work in the course -- in fact, they'll eventually be the subject of your major course writing project in the Second Term.

The topic of the slave trade is one of the most
powerful and morally challenging stories in human history. It's the story of the forced relocation of millions of people, the barbarous reduction of human beings to property, and extraordinary levels of violence required to sustain it. It compels us to examine both why it was allowed to occur, and the meaning of the struggle to end it. In particular, this year we'll be working with four eighteenth-century pamphlets. In Britain in the 1780s, the debate on the slave trade was intense, and a range of positions emerged. Many writers defended the trade, some emphasizing its economic benefits, while others maintained that the trade had a positive moral effect on African "heathens". Some criticized the trade, arguing that it was barbaric, un-Christian and debased the entire nation. Others criticized the cruel treatment of the slaves, or the trade in human property, but did not wholly condemn the institution of slavery itself, only how it was conducted. Over the remainder of the term, we'll work to understand that debate while working with a small number of particular sources.

The Workshop will also introduce you to a second, more technical challenge of reading primary sources that historians face: reading old documents in their original forms. Most of the sources you read as students are pre-processed for you. This processing involves transcribing them into modern print or digital formats. So far we've been reading sources that are available in easy-to-read modern styles of print -- at least, the letters are easy to read. This doesn't make the content any easier, and you'll also have noticed that old-fashioned styles of English require more concentration to understand. To read these sources, we have to slow down and pay close attention to the words and sentences. We have to practice close reading (see the Toolbox entries from Module 1).

Interestingly, when we slow down to read, we give ourselves a chance to read with more care, to examine the words, and their meanings, more space to contemplate what they're saying. We should always read carefully, but reading old texts means that we simply have to be careful if we are to understand that they say.

The "secrets" of these kinds of sources (i.e., older books) are the ones that we want to help you unlock.

Building a Usable Early Modern Database

One of the most exciting parts of this course is that you will be contributing significant research to a real online historical database. And you’ll be part of a team producing a database that you will use in this course, and that other historians around the world will be able to utilize for years to come. You will use the sources in the database to practice your skills of close reading (which you've already begun to learn about in Module 1) and "distant" reading (which we will introduce you to in Module 3). Unlike close reading, distant reading requires digitized, machine-readable versions of the sources.

We're working primarily in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in this course (especially Modules 3-5). Because Brock University is located in a small city like St. Catharines with a fairly small university library, until very recently very few of the primary sources from that era would have been available to us. The internet has changed that. Digitization has meant that thousands of versions of old books are now available in photographic reproductions of the actual pages. That's great, of course, because it means we suddenly have much more material available for us to see. But the problem is that much of this material isn’t available in forms that we can use with digital research tools, the kind of tools that make distant reading possible. Most of the tools that are available for historians require text that is machine readable; that is, the text needs to be recognizable to Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software, if it is going to be transcribed in an automated way. For modern books, that presents a few difficulties, but not too many.  For older books, especially ones using fonts and styles that we don’t use any more, that presents lots of problems.
Look at the opening paragraph from a 1745 pamphlet written by George Whitefield
, an Anglican evangelical preacher.  Whitefield is very interesting to us in this course because as he was a British-born writer who travelled frequently to America and commented on many major questions of the day. Most notably, he was a major critic of the manner in which slaves were treated.  Interestingly, while he condemned slave masters, he was not an abolitionist (a person who advocated for the end to slavery).  He criticized the ways slaves were treated, not the fact that they were slaves.  His writings, therefore, offer a nice point of comparison with not only someone who felt slavery should be abolished, but also someone who wholly supported slavery.  We can -- and we will! -- compare Whitefield's writing with others who debated the political, economic, and moral implications of the trade in human beings.  One way to compare those writings is to read them both carefully and closely. We will practice this, but we will also try other ways of read using digital tools. The advantage of digital techniques is that they allow us to read large amounts of text and thus often find patterns that may not be visible while reading them closely and carefully. In effect, we will not only be comparing texts but also comparing ways of reading them.

In this Workshop, you'll be working collaboratively to prepare four texts on slavery from 1784, 1785, 1788, and 1789 for use in your later workshops and assignments. Later in the term, we’ll be analyzing those cleaned-up texts using a text analysis program called Voyant Tools. At that point, you'll be able to form your own conclusions about the comparative benefits of traditional close reading of texts versus new distant reading.

Reading and Transcribing Eighteenth-Century Fonts

The first step in the process is our task for this First Workshop: transcribing the books you'll work with later in the course. For now, to get started, take another look at the excerpt from Whitefield's 1745 pamphlet (above).

If you’re not familiar with older fonts, you might wonder why everyone spoke with a "lifp". They didn’t.  Some of the older versions of the letter "s" look more like what we would call an "f". Look closely. Can you see that that there is a horizontal bar that goes all the way through both sides of the "f", but if there's any horizontal bar on a "s" it's only to the left-hand side of the letter. In other words, the two letters are NOT the same. This (to us) strange version of "s" is called a "long s". It is NOT an "f". The "long s" is a BIG problem for OCR readers, and as you'll see there are lots of other unusual features of these fonts.  Our minds are pliable enough to learn these very subtle distinctions, largely because our mind knows what these words should be (our minds do a kind of autocorrect, anticipating what should come next, how the words should look). While there are new versions of OCR programs emerging -- some even that work with handwritten manuscripts -- at this point it’s very difficult for a computer to read these old fonts. 

When the OCR program used by archive.org, the world’s largest online archival database, tried to "read" the Whitefield passage we include above, it rendered it as this:
As you can see, there are a significant number of mistakes in this passage -- so many that it's really not useful for us to use this text in other computer programs. It’s the information age, but the machines that read this information can’t help us here.

We can fix the problem.  Our first step toward this goal is that we need to go through the texts, word-by-word, and correct the mistakes.  The corrected version and proper transcription of the passage from 1745 is:

YOUR last sweet Letter was very savoury
to my Taste. It brought God to my
Soul. I feel much Heart-Union with
you. I thank you for all the kind Expressions
of your increasing Love. May the Lord re-
ward you an Hundred-fold in this World, and in
that to come
! Oh what a blessed Instrument of
much Good, has the Lord made you to my
poor Soul!

This kind of work is a great exercise for the historian-in-training.  First, it requires you to slow down and read carefully.  We know: most of you have full schedules, many combining jobs, domestic responsibilities, and a full academic schedule.  You’re always needing to be in a hurry, to read quickly -- you just need to get through as much of the material as possible.  We professors do that too; sometimes we even recommend "strategic reading" as an effective way to cut through the detail to get at the essentials.  But in research we often need to slow down, to read carefully, to think about what we’re reading, to sometimes stop on a word or a phrase to ponder exactly what’s going on. 

This week's exercise in transcription forces us to do just that.  We’ll all need to read … each … word … carefully … and … thoughtfully.  Is it spelled correctly?  Is it the right word? Is it spelled consistently? Is it a word at all? How did a blotch on the page of the original document that we’re looking at in jpg-format get converted into a word?  And as we ask questions like these, we’ll be preparing the text, we’ll be reading it carefully, and we’ll be thinking about its meaning.

Second, this exercise in transcription and slow reading acquaints you with the process of doing research.  As a student, you most often encounter primary sources in a package that’s already out of context.  Usually, it’s been transcribed and (re)published in a book, a textbook, a collection of some sort.  It’s been packaged for you.  Here, you'll be getting something raw, a digital image of a real unprocessed eighteenth-century text, and you'll get the opportunity to read it but also make it more useful for further research.  You, each of you, will be making a real contribution to historical scholarship; each of you will work through a few pages of the documents, make them usable and public, and later you'll craft your own historical analysis of them.


You're going to use a Transcription Tool in Sakai to do your work for this Workshop. The Tool is very easy to use. But you have to pay attention to the instructions for inputting data correctly. 

The workshop takes place in three stages (A, B, and C). You do them in order, one after the other.

You must complete your A and B transcriptions by the end of the day on Monday, October 21, 2019. The comparative transcription (C) is due by the end of the day on Thursday, October 31, 2019.  You may start as soon as you have finished reading the instructions. Note that you may have to be patient in completing Task C, since it requires that enough students have completed Tasks A and B. Therefore, you will help yourself and everyone else in the class if you complete Tasks A and B as soon as you can.

Tasks A and B of the Workshop are very straight-forward: go to the Transcription Tool in Sakai (see the image below). You can find it by using the link, or by going to the Tools menu in Sakai. There you'll see three buttons.  Click the first button (A) and that will take you to a screen with two windows. One is an image of a single page from original 18th-century book (which the tool will assign to you -- you won't have to choose anything -- it will simply be there); the other is the window in which you'll type the clean, transcribed, digital version.

You will transcribe the text one page at a time.

To be clear, at no point will you have to choose a text. When you go to the Transcription Tool, the tool assigns a 5-page section to you at each stage (A, B, and C).

Please make sure to follow the instructions above. If you accidentally click "Save and Mark as Done" before your work is actually done, you will have to write to the Instructor Role in Sakai Messages to request that your work be reset.

When everyone has completed the Transcription Workshop, the program will reassemble the pamphlets with their fresh, new, clean, digital text formats!

The 4 books you'll work together to transcribe are:

Some details on entering your transcription

NOTE: There are some passages in the books that may not be in English. Some of these passages even use non-Latin letters at times. When you find phrases or passages on pages that you are transcribing, add [...] (but without the italics or highlighting) to indicate that you have left out some foreign language text. 

Task C

The process in Task C is effectively the same as in Tasks A and B. When you open Part C you'll see an image of a piece of 18th-century text and a blank page, just as you did when you transcribed A and B. Above that will be two windows with transcribed text; one labelled A and one labelled B. Those are an A and B transcription completed by two of your classmates. These give you a guide to your transcription work, since the A and B versions are of the page that you are transcribing from the original. (Note: other students will be using your A and B transcriptions.)

Your task in Part C is to transcribe from the original, just as you did in earlier tasks, but also to use your classmates' versions as guides.  The transcription tool software compares the two texts for you to help you notice differences between the two.  Your job is to examine the text, examine the two transcriptions, and type the corrected (final) version. You'll type that into the blank window, just as you did when you did A and B.

​The colours in the previously transcribed versions help you to identify similarities/differences: 

The idea is that two people have transcribed, and a third is checking. The end result should be good, clean text -- text that we can begin to use with our digital tools.

Now, start reading and transcribing!


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