Researching Early Modern History

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Crowdsourced projects: Shakespeare’s World – F. Lauwaerts

A couple of months ago, I came across Shakespeare’s World, a crowdsourced project aimed at transcribing documents from the age of Shakespeare (1564-1616). Shakespeare’s World is a collaboration of the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Early Modern Manuscripts Online and Zooniverse. Their goal is to learn more about the daily lives of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and to add unrecorded words and word variants to the OED. The project is featured on Zooniverse, which provides a platform on which either recipes or letters can be transcribed. A short tutorial introduces the necessary tools, after which volunteers can start transcribing. The website also offers an introduction to the basics of palaeography and refers to other platforms for further palaeographical training (I have included their link to “Folgerpedia” below).

I started participating in Shakespeare’s World both out of interest and to further familiarize myself with the handwriting from that era. In my experience, academic courses on paleography focus on establishing a broader range of skills. During my lessons, I had to transcribe documents from various periods, ranging from the early Middle Ages to the end of the nineteenth century. That course taught me the palaeographical basics, from which I could further improve my skills and specialize in certain hands. Therefore, I think participation in such crowdsourced projects offer students and historians the opportunity to practice and specialize in transcribing manuscripts from specific eras, while also aiding historical research. However, the drawback is that you do not get any feedback on the accuracy of your transcriptions in those projects. Nevertheless, I find that even without correction, my skills have improved by continual transcription and by familiarising myself with different types of hands.

Aside from the opportunity to improve your palaeographical skills, I find that crowdsourced projects in general provide other benefits as well. Participants are often granted access to a diverse range of sources to transcribe. Consequently, researchers may encounter new documents and archives from which can benefit their own investigations. Furthermore, there is often the possibility to engage in discussions about the project on forums, thus enabling researchers to discover new methods and information. For example, via “Talk” participants in Shakespeare’s World discuss their findings, methodological problems, the historical context, etc. This ties into online discussions and connections via social media or online communities (e.g. Twitter, H-Net). Because of these opportunities, I believe it is beneficial for historians and students to participate in crowdsourced projects, as well as to create and manage projects as part of their own academic research.

Finally, I would like to wish you all Happy Holidays and an excellent New Year!

Shakespeare’s World

Folgerpedia offers a list of online resources for early modern English palaeography

H-Net: Humanities and Social Sciences Online


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