Transcribing History FromThePage

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February 21, 2024
black and white photo of E Lorne Knight on Wrangel Island wearing goggles

image from Rauner Library archives of E. Lorne Knight on Wrangel Island

Transcribing Primary Resources

“After traveling just an hour West, we saw something dark on the horizon...and by aid of the glasses saw that it was 'the lost one'...We bundled her on the sled and brought her home, where she now sits, moping. Crawford tried to ascertain what her objective in leaving was and where she had been but to no avail” (page 39).

Dated November 27, this excerpt is a peek into E. Lorne Knight’s daily life on Wrangel Island. Located near the Bering Strait and named after the Russian explorer Baron Ferdinand Von Wrangel, who didn’t discover it, Wrangel Island lured settlers and explorers alike. Many died awaiting rescue or from their naivete and hubris.

E. Lorne Knight with a walrus tusk on Wrangel Island

image from Rauner Library archives of E. Lorne Knight on Wrangel Island

Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth stewards Lorne and others’ diaries from Wrangel Island as part of its Stefansson Collection. Lorne’s diary is just one unique narrative from the failed Wrangel Island expedition. There are eight other accounts from Wrangel Island. This collection provides curious thinkers, history buffs, and researchers with an array of “historical truths” to explore and analyze in person. But what about people who can’t visit Rauner Library?

By digitally transcribing and indexing primary resources like this diary, we maximize their reach. At Dartmouth Libraries, the Digital by Dartmouth Library (DxDL) team uses a tool called “FromThePage,’ to showcase digital copies of an item alongside transcripted text from that item.

students work on transcribing E. Lorne Knight's diary

students transcribe E. Lorne Knight's diary on FromThePage

The process enables anyone anywhere to access these resources in a reader-friendly format. Samara Cary, a Digital Project Specialist in DxDL, coordinates transcription volunteers for FromThePage and partners with staff and faculty who use this tool in their teaching and research work. She explains that “digital transcription brings histories’ words into our time, making them readable, understandable, and available to anyone anywhere. By indexing, we name people who may have been lost to time and thread them back into the narratives.” 

Among Samara’s volunteers is library staff member Katherine Bepler. She shares that contributing to global scholarship and advanced research in this way “is important because you can never know what kind of research someone might use this material for in the future. Some of this information might seem obscure, but if it isn’t accessible, we will never know how it would have been useful.”

students in Ross Virginia's arctic class look at E. Lorne Knight's diary while transcribing

transcribing E. Lorne Knight's Wrangel Island diary

Digitization “radically increases access," Jay Satterfield, Head of Special Collections at Rauner Library 

Jay also shares some lesser-recognized benefits. For instance, “digitization creates a new context for that document…When you pluck out a diary and digitize it, you set it into a new context. And sometimes, that can create new meaning and new understanding. It also runs the risk of creating misunderstanding and confusion because it’s taken from the original context.” 

Transcribing Lorne’s diarized words into FromThePage has become a powerful learning tool in Ross Virginia’s Environmental Issues of the Earth's Cold Regions class. For Ross, “history isn’t separate from science,” and “understanding the past is a way to consider the future of the Arctic.” 

A diary is arguably the most intimate form of a person...All too often, it can be easy to brush off a diary as an unimportant perspective.

Annabel, a student in Ross Virginia's class
Ross Virginia stands back left while students work with libraries' staff to transcribe E. Lorne Knight's diary

students collectively transcribe E. Lorne Knight's diary in The LINK

Using Lorne’s diary as a focal point, Ross and partners from the library staff have co-designed a unique learning experience demonstrating the complicated nature of the Wrangel Island narrative. “You can untangle threads through various lenses, such as gender, indigenous experiences, the environment, medical history, etc. There is a fascinating layer of historiography in the diary, too, because parts of Lorne’s diary were [blacked out], maybe in an effort to “shape” the narrative,” says Elizabeth Shand, Digital Collections Librarian in DxDL. These threads students can pull have the potential to “empower them to find their own avenue into research, making their research project stronger.”

By transcribing a diary on FromThePage that very few people have yet read, the 41 students in Ross’s class are ensuring a unique piece of history becomes an accessible fixture in the body of knowledge covering the Arctic and Arctic exploration.

Elizabeth Shand, librarian, talks students through the transcription process in Ross Virginia's class

librarian Elizabeth Shand discusses Lorne's diary and the transcription process

“A diary is arguably the most intimate form of a person,” says Annabel, a student from Ross’s class. She described the experience as enriching and confronting. In the entries Annabel encountered, she found what she calls “rare admissions of guilt” in Lorne’s detailed abuse of Ada Blackjack, the lone human survivor of the 1923 Wrangel Island rescue mission. Annabel shared that it was “oddly chilling and incredibly saddening to read his justification for his vile acts.” These feelings affirmed the importance of her contribution to this project. “All too often, it can be easy to brush off a diary as an unimportant perspective.” Instead, as Annabel describes, we’re forced to remove the rose-tinted glasses to see history differently thanks to this work.

Transcribing diaries like Lorne’s can “create an empathetic response from the reader in 2024 to Lorne in 1921,” says Jay. He cautions, though, "We feel like we're in his head, but we’re not. We can use that feeling, though, as the trigger moment to start asking good questions to understand the context and the writer better.”

Professor Ross Virginia stands and speaks with his class

professor Ross Virginia in front of his class

Benjamin was responsible for a different diary excerpt from Annabel. Reading cursive made the initial process slow-going, but then Benjamin found his rhythm. "Transcribing was a fascinating and enriching experience" and gave Benjamin a better understanding of the expedition and the people's lives on that journey.

"Most education is about mastery; a professor teaches, and the student can then write or test well about that subject. That approach is less about creating new knowledge and instead is a repackaging to show that the student understands. But Ross's class is a chance to interpret primary resources afresh - some that have never been looked at - and in that way, create new knowledge to show a different form of mastery," says Jay.

Benjamin expanded on his transcription experience by stating that he felt he "contributed to a greater cause throughout this process, hopefully helping those unable to physically interact with the materials conduct research in the future."

Ross’s class is a chance to interpret primary resources afresh - some that have never been looked at - and in that way, create new knowledge to show a different form of mastery.

Jay Satterfield, Head of Special Collections, Rauner Special Collections Library
excerpt from Knight's diary page 44 FromThePage

page 44 E. Lorne Knight diary excerpt FromThePage

Sydney shared a similar sentiment. “I close-read each word in the text carefully and slowly, more so than I would probably do if I were not transcribing—but just reading—a delicate physical document. I appreciated how FromThePage synthesizes information across diary entry transcriptions and analyzes the connections between recurring people and places. I imagine this digital word map will benefit researchers interested in piecing together the socio-ecological system and the main movers and shakers of polar exploration from 1900-30.”

Additionally, these students’ transcription and indexing work will become a permanent part of “Collating Wrangel Island,” the Libraries’ digital collection of expedition papers and documents. The Libraries’ process of encoding the transcription and metadata means the students have their names (and labor) permanently attached to the diary’s digital publication. 

Transcribing Knight's words made me feel even more connected to the Expedition, and like I was somehow a part of this history myself, in that I was publishing Lorne's words to the rest of the world. I like that this project is not superficial but productive and contributes to a real archive that people will use. I'm proud to be a (little) part of it! 

Astrid, a student in Ross Virginia's class

Using FromThePage to transcribe primary resources such as Lorne's diary is what Samara refers to as an "intimate process." Transcribers become profoundly connected with the text because of the intense focus on the words to ensure accuracy. Further, "you are imprinting on it, becoming part of that document's journey, its history. In the process, you connect with the writer and the recipient - the original intended reader of the writing - becoming part of the narrative."

When asked about the importance and impact of broadening access to primary resources, Jay acknowledges that, broadly, it's critical to understanding history and for the future. He shared the adage that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it and continued by saying, "There's a corollary that I ascribe – those who know history are able to share in creating the future." 

 

DxDL invites you to transcribe primary resources on FromThePage. Transcribe unique histories and narratives. Contribute to new knowledge and research. Help widen and deepen the research landscape. 

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