Moving with the Crowd
Zooniverse is a ‘citizen science web portal’ , or in other words, ‘people-powered research’. After a targeted browsing of Zooniverse, it was humanity that drew me to the letters and recipes of the Shakespeare’s World project. I embarked with imaginings of sonnet like love letters however, my imaginings and expectations were misspent.
Shakespeare’s World is quick and easy to dive into. There is no requirement to sign in, but every guest user must click through an eleven step tutorial. The comprehensive tutorial guides the user through the complete functionality of the program capabilities; usability is not a major hurdle to this project. This transcription platform is quite comprehensive in that it makes accommodation to include superscript, subscript, strike-throughs, deletions, insertions, as well as images, marginalia and annotations.
The main obstacle to engagement is the complex process of palaeography as described here. The challenge of deciphering the handwriting is compounded by the fact that spelling, punctuation, and the capitalisation of words were not yet standardised in Shakespeare’s time. Add to that the inclusion of Latin manuscripts and, in the beginning, I felt utterly hopeless that I would be able to contribute to this project at all! The Anti-Slavery Manuscripts project requires transcription on a line by line basis, fortunately, Shakespeare’s World accepts input on a word by word basis and so this is how I started. As I continued practicing my confidence grew and I was, at times, able to transcribe whole lines and pages from certain manuscripts.
Many of the stumbling blocks I encountered are precisely the reason that transcription is required. One of the aims of this project is to identify lost words and spellings from Shakespeare’s time and have them added to the OED. The further we get from the 16th Century and at the accelerated rate which our language is developing, the further we will be from recognising lost words from that time period.
Implications of my Contribution
The blurb offered on Zooniverse is a tantalising taster that reads:
Transcribe handwritten documents from Shakespeare’s contemporaries and help us understand his life and times.
Once you enter the project, another exciting enticer is offered to spur the user on
You’ll find words that have yet to be recorded in the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary.
I became a treasure hunter! As part of the registration process, I had the option to enter my full name so that I can be credited with recording new words, and variant spellings. There is certain quiet satisfaction knowing that I have the opportunity to restore something lost in time.
Due to the difficulties I encountered with handwriting in Shakespeare’s World, realistically, my contributions have been quite minimal. However, the contribution of the project as a whole, is immense. Political letters from historical figures and cultural influencers weighing in on topical issues provides a vital frame of reference when grappling to find and understand the cultural context in which Shakespeare wrote. While this is not implicitly mentioned in the goals of the project, it is natural by-product of transcribing these documents.
To give you an idea of what is being transcribed by Shakespeare’s World, here is a description of a catalogue from which I transcribed at least one page of text:
State letters from 1533 to ca. 1630 [manuscript],
Contains copies of 201 letters including much material about Ireland, Catholics in England, and foreign affairs. A few of the letters include: Henry VIII’s letter to the clergy of York regarding title Supreme Head, 1533, p. 1; letters of John Lyly to the Queen, undated, p. 42; letters from the Earl of Essex, p. 103; letters and a poem of Sir Walter Raleigh, p. 670; many letters of Sir Francis Bacon, passim; comment on Spenser’s Faerie Queene, p. 895, by Sir Kenelm Digby.
What I have learned
I have learned a number of things from my experience with the Shakespeare’s World project. I learned a method for treating sciatica pain as well as how to correctly boil cabbage – according to a 16th Century cook…
I learned that there is good reason for the comprehensive tutorials. A user that skips through the tutorials without taking note of the available assets, such as the availability of a ‘crib sheet’ or examples of the ‘Miniscules’ and ‘Majuscules’, may have far less success in contributing to the project than a studious user that responsibly persists through the eleven step tutorial, and takes note of the resources available.
Casual users who contribute faulty data to any project without thought or care, damage the integrity of crowdsourcing initiatives. This is a major argument against allowing users to contribute to the project without signing in. No sanctions can be placed on an unregistered saboteur. Dedicated users, contributing conscientiously, are both the back bone and brains of crowdsourcing initiatives.
I have learned that community is essential, and collaboration is a global pursuit. Each image has a button that you can click to ‘Talk about this image’. Without this function, and the contribution of the international Zooniverse community, I would not have realised that my inability to decipher some pages in the early portion of my pursuit was due to a language barrier. The community was able to reassure me that one particular image I had struggled with, was in fact Latin, of which I have no familiarity and so could not be expected to easily transcribe.
The community aspect of this project could and should be expanded to include some sort of social media group where users can petition for assistance on a particular word or phrase. For example, @dancohen recently used a Twitter poll to conduct a human OCR experiment, and received 56 votes in 41 minutes.
(Full disclosure: Unfortunately, in this case the social media and the crowd got it wrong. This tweet reveals the correct answer is in fact ‘u’.)
Building on Shakespeare’s World
Suggestions for future development
My minor field of study is English and so naturally I was drawn to the Shakespeare’s World project. A deeper understanding of the political and cultural context in which Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote, means a more comprehensive perception of hidden and lost meanings in their work. The transcription of these papers makes the information more readily available to the scholar unable to spend valuable time deciphering original handwriting.
Applying the knowledge I have gained from this experience, I have a few suggestions that would result in overall increased output for the project.
Every time a user is finished with an image, they are assigned another random image for transcription. I suggest changing this for two reasons:
Reason 1. When dealing with such challenging penmanship it would be useful to have images assigned in batches, grouped by scribe, so that the user has an opportunity to become accustomed to the handwriting of that scribe. If certain penmanship is illegible to the user, a whole group of images can be skipped over and a more readable manuscript found. Coming to terms with one set of nuances, and immediately being challenged by a different scribe is frustrating and discourages the user from continuing.
As well as grouping images by scribe, those groups should then be categorised into beginner, intermediate and expert levels so as to gently initiate the inexperienced user. Beginner categories of manuscripts with easier to decipher penmanship would encourage users to continue transcribing rather than falling at the first hurdle and losing interest. The satisfaction of success is a great incentive to continue. The grouping of manuscripts into categories of difficulty would provide a learning platform for beginners, facilitate an increase of ability, while concurrently serving the purposes of the project.
This is an example found on the Duchás project website.
A book can be transcribed by turning the pages of the book, with the purple arrow keys at the top of the screen. This allows the user to become familiar with the flourishes of a particular hand as well as offering continuity of narrative, which leads to my second reason for changing the manner in which pages are assigned to users.
Reason 2. Shakespeare’s World is not gamified in any way. There are no badges or levels to attain. There is little built into this project to reward participants. Participation is its own reward. I suggest that the participatory process can be enriched by following the model provided by the Duchás project. By implementing the recommendations in my point above (batching by scribe), it should logically follow that images are delivered to the user in order. This would offer a continuity of narrative as the user transcribes from images that follow one after the other. If a letter or recipe runs to a second page, a user is far more likely to continue transcribing another line or two than abandon the incomplete section.
In making this platform more user friendly, image filters would offer additional support to the process. While participating in this project, I came across many images which were difficult to transcribe. The difficulty of understanding the handwriting was compounded by factors such as faded ink, or ink bleeds from one page to another. Anti-Slavery Manuscripts offers the option to invert the colours of the manuscript allowing the user greater ability to decipher what is written on the page.
Because Shakespeare’s World does not offer any such tool, I used a simple application on my iPad; Meitu is a free application designed to enhance the colour of make-up by applying filters to your photographs. It was the perfect tool to enhance the script on my screen. Below are the before (unedited) and after (edited through Meitu) pictures of one particularly faded page of text.
While there is clearly room to improve the Shakespeare’s World project, it’s potential to unlock the context of Shakespeare’s world and rebuild it around the modern reader, is unparalleled.