Little Dorrit ‘Transcribe-a-Thon’



February 1, 2021

On Thursday 10 December, the ‘Deciphering Dickens’ project hosted a small group of Dickens, manuscript, and handwriting enthusiasts to take part in an online ‘transcribe-a-thon’ of Little Dorrit.

As well as sharing Dickens’s manuscripts with a wider audience, we want to learn more about Dickens’s creative process by deciphering the insertions, deletions, and other corrections that the author made to his manuscripts as he wrote. Many of these alterations are heavily crossed out, and require a combination of patience and persistence (and the occasional moment of divine inspiration!) to decipher.

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit manuscript, chapter 1, 1855

As there are so many manuscripts, and the deletions are so difficult to decipher in places, we’re looking for ways to crowdsource this process. We hope that the more people we can share the manuscripts with, the more we will be able to decipher. As part of the next phase of our project, we have been planning events in which we can invite others to take part.

In our first event, an online ‘transcribe-a-thon’ workshop, we introduced a small group of participants to the Little Dorrit manuscripts, and spent some dedicated time working on deciphering and transcribing. Thanks to the wonders of virtual meeting platforms, we were all able to work in the same ‘meeting room’ throughout the event, despite being located all around the world (we had participants from the UK, Europe, US, and Brazil). Working together simultaneously meant that we were able to answer questions in real time and provide support while participants worked on their transcriptions – we would not have implemented this way of working before lockdown.

The workshop began with a short overview of the transcription process and a few technical questions. We are currently using FromThePage to transcribe: this is an online platform that hosts the manuscript image alongside the transcribed text, and enables us to mark up our transcriptions to indicate when phrases have been inserted, deleted, or altered in some way.

In talking through how to use FromThePage, we were also able to take the opportunity to showcase a recent update to the software, which will allow us to record alterations to the manuscripts much more easily. The new software now allows mark-up tags to be added to transcriptions automatically, rather than having to type them out manually. In the future we hope this will help to reduce errors in the formatting of the mark-up.

Following this short introduction, it was time to begin! Our transcribers took part in two dedicated transcription sessions, each focusing on a single page of the manuscript, as well as a much-needed tea break halfway through to provide some time away from the complexities (and frustrations!) of Dickens’s handwriting. The workshop then closed with a general discussion in which participants could share their experiences, and give us feedback on the deciphering process. We also discussed a number of fascinating editorial questions that had been raised over the course of the workshop, such as the recording of punctuation marks and capitalization (we discovered that Dickens is often rather inconsistent with both!).

Charles Dickens painted by William Powell Frith R.A. (1819 – 1909). Museum no. F.7 © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Overall, the ‘transcribe-a-thon’ was a fantastic opportunity to share our project, and we would like to thank everyone who took part for their hard work. We made excellent progress, and hope that all our participants will continue to be involved with the project in the future.

Planning is now underway for our second online event on 18 February 2021. This event will be open to a much larger audience, and will include a mixture of presentations, discussion panels, and a workshop, showcasing FromthePage in more detail. Please look out for more details on the ‘What’s On’ page of the V&A website in order to sign up.

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