Fidelity, Accuracy, and the Delicate Balance

A documentary editor’s top priority is unwavering accuracy to their collection’s text.

Wait, that doesn’t sound right.

A documentary editor’s goal should be the regularizing of words and writing styles so as to be easily read and searched by a reader.

But that doesn’t sound quite right, either.

These are the two schools of thought that a documentary editor grapples with when deciding on an editing style early in a project’s life. Fidelity: digitally representing an object exactly how it was created. Accuracy: changing characters or words to standardize and correct mistakes for various purposes. Humans are imperfect beings, leading us to make mistakes every so often, but also giving every person their own unique form of expression. But when someone’s written work, along with the imperfections it will undoubtedly have, is being prepared for increased access by being digitized and transcribed, how faithful should we be to their exact pen strokes?

For an example, take this salutation by W. E. B. Du Bois:

A greeting from a letter from W. E. B. Du Bois.
W. E. B. Du Bois to Jane Addams, April 19, 1905.

A common mistake made by over 400 authors in our digital edition so far, Du Bois spells Addams with a single D. In this case, as per our transcription guidelines, an editor would place [brackets] around the misspelled word and correct it. Our practices lean more toward accuracy than fidelity in this case, and would be applied to any incorrectly spelled name or word. After lengthy discussion, we felt this rule would aid with online searches . We also know that the spelling written above is factually wrong, and feel that correcting the mistake lessens confusion with names that may have been spelled 10 different ways across 10 different documents.

But what about another rule we have, concerning abbreviations:

A closing from a letter to Mary Rozet Smith.
Jane Addams to Mary Rozet Smith, August 24, 1906.

Here, in a closing of the letter to Mary Rozet Smith, Addams writes, “Always yrs J. A.” which is exactly as we have transcribed the line. But wait, “yrs” is decidedly not how you spell “yours” in which case it should be bracketed and corrected, right? In this case we are leaving the spelling as is, arguing that expanding and regularizing abbreviated words changes the tone of the writing too intrusively. By leaning more toward fidelity rather than accuracy here, we hope to retain the unique style of writing that an author may have had.

Our transcription guidelines include dozens of rules about how to treat difficult to read texts or irregularities in spelling and punctuation. With each rule, editors hope to keep the delicate balance between fidelity and accuracy in transcriptions. One rule that is visible across the site is the use of brackets. By using brackets around changed words, editors can easily inform readers that something about the text may be different than the original, and by providing an image the reader can quickly check the spot that the change took place.

The bright side to editors working on a digital edition is the ability to easily change project guidelines. If, for some reason, we decide to change any of our rules, it would be entirely possible, though perhaps time consuming. This allows our relationship with our transcriptions to continue to grow as our editors develop a deeper connection with our texts.

This blog post was inspired by Ben Brumfield’s blog post “The Transcription Quality Balancing Act”.

For further examples of different transcription practices, see the National Archives’ Transcription Tips and Family Search’s How should I index incorrect records?

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