I’ll be the first to admit it. Reading Jane Addams’ handwriting is difficult, and just when you think that you have gotten it down, you run across a letter that makes you question your profession.
Working on a digital edition with such challenging handwriting has been a bit different than working on a print edition. With print it is essential to get the transcription as perfect as you can because it is unlikely that there will ever be a revised printing of your edition; the best you can usually hope for is an embarrassing errata page that highlights every mistake that you have made (at least those that you have found!). With digital publication, we can seamlessly correct errors in transcription as soon as we discover them. And while this means there is less pressure on us to craft a perfect transcription, we do have to grapple with the question of how good our transcription should be in order to publish it.
First pass transcriptions generally have errors. Most of our draft transcriptions are done by students (amazing students!), who have made great strides in reading and transcribing Addams’ hand, but they are not perfect. Errors are made even when transcribing typed documents, which are sometimes long and have repetitive elements. In order to ensure that these errors are caught and corrected, we proofread each transcription at least once, in teams. What this means is that one editor reads from the document (reading punctuation and capitalization aloud as well) while the other follows along with the transcription. Whenever the two do not match, we stop and identify the discrepancy and correct it. It is not always the transcription–sometimes we read the document incorrectly. But this ensures that we have carefully proofread the original.
Problems arise when we cannot make out the words at the proofreading stage either. We mark the places where we are unsure of the meaning of the word with [square brackets], adding [question marks?] when the reading is a bit less certain that that, and we admit that the word or words are [illegible] when we just can’t make them out. No editor likes to see [illegible words] in her edition–each one stabs at us, taunting us with our own inadequacies–no matter how hard that word really is to read!
For most editors, the decision of when to give up and publish a problem document’s transcription is a difficult one, and we review and revise our readings of the document over and over until we throw our hands up in frustration and let it go out with an [illegible]. When publishing a digital edition, this decision gets even harder. Is it more useful for our readers that we publish a transcription of 99% of a document quickly, or that we wait and wait to get that last 1%? We have made the decision to publish the 99% and to invite help, both from experts on our Advisory Board, Addams scholars, but also from the general public, to help tease out that 1%.
We’ve done this by creating a Help! tag for documents in the digital edition that have words that we cannot read. To get a look at them, follow this link, or select Browse Items, and then Browse by Tag. If you think you can read the [illegible words] that we couldn’t, drop us a line in the Comment box at the bottom of the document. If this is something you enjoy doing, reach out to us; we would be delighted to have you check our problem documents before they are published.