I have over 20 years' experience of palaeography from my own academic research, and have been doing professional manuscript transcription work for over 10 years. Some of this work has been published at British History Online. I specialize in transcription of English language documents from the 16th century onwards, and can also extract data from formulaic Latin documents, and transcribe printed text in any language that uses the Latin alphabet. See the headings below for more details of services and prices, and published examples of my work. I can give free quotes to help with project planning and funding bids. I am based in the UK but often work for overseas clients, especially in the US. Most of my work is for organizations, but I can also work for private individuals.
Manuscript Transcription and XML Markup
I can do very accurate full text transcriptions according to any transcription conventions you specify. Transcripts can be delivered as plain text, word processor files, or XML. I can add basic XML markup at no extra cost if you can supply a schema and human-readable tagging instructions. This markup can include the basic structure of the text, named entities, and dates. I am familiar with TEI P5.
You will have to supply digital images of the pages to be transcribed, and get copyright clearance if necessary. High quality images are easier to use, but I can deal with whatever you've got, even if it's too difficult for HTR/OCR software or unskilled double keyers.
Prices and timescales for full transcripts vary according to the number of words per page, image quality, and difficulty of handwriting. Assuming an average of around 250 words per page, I could deliver up to 400 pages per month at the following prices per page:
- EUR 5.50
To give an accurate quote, I would ideally need to see all of the pages to be transcribed, but this isn't always necessary if the documents are in a very standard form or I'm already familiar with them. Prerogative Court of Canterbury wills in PROB 11 will cost three times the above prices per full page because they contain a very large amount of text and the scans available online are very low quality.
I expect my transcripts to be around 99.99% accurate at word level. I use the following methods (which are included in the prices given above) to ensure accuracy:
- working carefully and not going too fast. This reduces typing errors. Shannon's communication theory says that speed and redundancy both affect the accuracy of transmission. Advocates of double keying tend to privilege redundancy but I compensate for a lack of redundancy by reducing the speed. Be suspicious of any transcriber who quotes a high words per minute speed.
- positioning windows on the screen so that only one line of the image is visible at a time. This reduces the risk of missing words or lines because of eye skip, which can be very difficult and expensive to track down afterwards.
- using my experience of transcription and historical research to read individual letter forms, words and abbreviations accurately, and understand the structure and purpose of documents. This helps me to avoid errors that unskilled keyers would make and recognise possible errors during later checks.
- a second pass to deal with difficult words which have been flagged in the first pass. This is more efficient than spending too long on a word at the first pass. The experience of transcribing the rest of the text often makes difficult words easier.
- text mining: using a script to construct a list of unique words, which can be compared with a dictionary if modern spellings are used, or browsed manually if non-standard early-modern spellings are used. This is the best way to trap words that are likely to have been mistyped. Suspect words will be checked against the document images.
- smooth reading: reading the whole text without skimming words, but without carefully examining the spelling of words. This is the best way to find dictionary words that don't make sense in context. My experience of historical documents helps me to notice words that could be wrong. Suspect words will be checked against the document images.
I do not use double keying, because it is always likely to be at least one of:
- Expensive: paying a fair wage to two experts to transcribe the same text, and a third expert to reconcile the differences, will more than double the cost for less than 1% increase in accuracy. Few projects can justify this cost in their funding bids.
- Exploitative: reducing the cost of double keying to compete with my single keying service depends on exploiting low-paid workers in the Far East. Projects that use outsourced double keying are unethical.
- Inaccurate: low-paid workers who lack the experience and language skills to understand historical documents, and who are made to work as fast as possible to save money, are likely to make many errors. Inexperienced transcribers are likely to make the same errors as each other, and double keying has no way of trapping these errors. Genealogy paysites are notorious for their poor quality transcripts.
The more you try to fix one of these problems, the more you will exacerbate one of the others. Double keying is fundamentally flawed and should be avoided.
I can enter structured data into a spreadsheet, database, or XML file. This is easiest to do if the original document is already structured, but I can also extract structured data from unstructured or semi-structured documents.
I will need to test transcribing a sample of data before I can quote a price. Some basic data cleaning checks will be included at no extra charge.
I can check and correct existing structured data, or apply checks to data that I have entered myself. I use a combination of OpenRefine, LibreOffice spreadsheet, and custom Python scripts. Checks and corrections typically include:
- Values entered in wrong columns.
- Combinations of values across columns that don't make sense.
- Inconsistent null values.
- Obviously mistyped words.
- Standardizing spellings of entity names.
- Reconciling entity names with external identifiers.
I will need to see the whole dataset before quoting a price as it depends more on the number of unique values than on the total number of records. This kind of work can be difficult to cost in advance, so it may have to be done as employment or casual work to be paid by the hour.
I can extract data and convert it to other formats for reuse elsewhere. For example, I developed a semi-automated process to create wiki pages for Linking Experiences of World War One. This involved extracting catalogue records for WO 95 war diaries from TNA's Discovery catalogue, manually cleaning and reconciling the data, and using custom Python scripts to generate wiki XML that could be imported into MediaWiki. This method created basic pages for around 7,000 individual military units with much less effort than creating pages manually. This kind of work can be difficult to cost in advance, so it may have to be done as employment or casual work to be paid by the hour.
Examples of my work
The identities of my clients and the work I do for them are kept confidential by default, but these clients have chosen to credit me on their websites or social media. These examples show that I am capable of producing high quality work suitable for academic research and publication.
- The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth-Century England (Birkbeck University of London): several hundred petitions that I transcribed for this project have been published at British History Online. More will be published at British History Online and the project's own website in future.
- Corpus Synodalium: a database of medieval church statutes compiled by Professor Rowan Dorin at Harvard and Stanford universities. I contributed 645,000 words transcribed from printed texts that were too difficult for OCR.
- 1624 Parliament project (History of Parliament Trust): I transcribed the diary of Richard Dyott MP, which was published at British History Online. This was especially difficult work because the original manuscript is water damaged.
- Life in the Suburbs (Centre for Metropolitan History and Cambridge Population Group): I transcribed St Botolph Aldgate burial registers from the 1580s to 1710s into a database which has since been published at SAS-Space and as part of London Lives.