In April the Royal BC Museum launched Transcribe, a crowd-sourcing website that provides citizen historians with an opportunity to transcribe historical documents from the Provincial Archives. The museum’s first transcription project features First World War Letters, Diaries and Scrapbooks from a dozen families with British Columbia connections.
The concept is very similar to Operation War Diary, the project launched last year in the UK by the Imperial War Museum, The National Archives and Zooniverse. While the objectives are similar the subject matter is not. Operation War Diary focuses on official British Army Regimental diaries and not personal diaries and soldier’s letters as featured in Transcribe.
The Transcribe interface is simple to use and there is no requirement for participants to register. I transcribed half a dozen pages on my very first visit.
Getting started is as simple as clicking on any page tagged “Not Started” and entering text into the transcription box. A Transcription Tips page provides guidelines on exactly how to do it and once you’re done the page is automatically tagged “Needs Review“. When the page is reviewed by Royal BC Museum staff it is tagged as “Complete” and becomes searchable within the Royal BC Museum website. At this point it doesn’t appear that this information is searchable in public search engines such as Google which is a shame as it limits the chances that researchers will find these valuable documents.
Visitors to the website can simply browse the documents if they prefer. The collections on offer are varied and include letters from many soldiers to family and friends. Documents and letters relating to Norah Creina Denny, a Special Military Probationer with the Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service (Reserve) are also featured. Norah Denny grew up in Lincolnshire and served from 1915 to 1919. After the war Norah moved to Vancouver Island and opened Queen Margaret’s School in Duncan which is still in operation today.
I’m fortunate to be in the possession of some Denny family photographs and have included one of Norah posing with her father Edmund Barry Denny and brother Henry Allen Maynard Denny. Henry was one of two brothers who were already living in Canada at the outbreak of war. Both were in the 50th Gordon Highlanders and sailed to England in October 1914 as members of the 16th Battalion (The Canadian Scottish). Henry was offered and accepted a commission in the 9th Battn. Lincolnshire Regiment in December 1914. I’ll be writing more about the Denny family in a separate article.
The Transcribe collections contain many other fascinating documents, including:
- Letters to Frank Tregillus, a Cariboo miner and prospector, from many soldiers including Joseph Callanan, J.H. Ellis, George Freeman Killam, George Gilchrest, R. Norris, John Petterson, Ernest Seeley, N.W. Thompson, George Turner, and John Benjamin Westover.
- Letters to Alma Russell, a librarian at the Legislative Library, from Jack A. Gunn, Sergeant H.O. Allen and his son Corporal F.J. Allen, Bombardier Bert Greer, Lieutenant Colonel W.J.H. Holmes, Sergeant John Raymond McIllree, Trooper Joseph Shires, Private Gregory T. Yorke and Private John Charles Switzer.
- Letters from Arthur Douglas Crease describing the Battle of the Somme and the use of tanks at Courcellette.
- The diaries of Henry Masterman Mist, an Englishman arrested in Germany at the start of the war and imprisoned in Ruhleben, a civilian prisoner of war camp. The collection includes a 1916 copy of Prisoners’ Pie magazine.
- The illustrated diaries of land surveyor and map maker Frank Swannell.
I believe crowd-sourcing projects such as this are one of the most creative ways that institutions can engage citizens, not only in British Columbia but around the world. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if they could partner with schools and offer students the opportunity to learn about their past while helping create new searchable content for researchers of the future? Projects like this deserve our support so I encourage you to visit Transcribe and to spread the word.