Citizen Scientists Creating Knowledge: Report on a Collaborative Transcription Workshop – Part I: Introduction

Practicing Old German Script

In April 2022 the Natural History Museum, Berlin, started its second beginners’ course in reading and transcribing old German script (Kurrent and Sütterlin). Our project is a key collaborator in this citizen science project. The online class is taught by Dr Diana Stört (Natural History Museum, Berlin) and Eva Bischoff. It brings together volunteer citizen scholars and students of Trier University.

Deciphering hand-written documents is a key element of historical research, e.g. to clarify the provenience of material objects in a museum’s collection. In addition to introducing the participant to the key elements of this important skill, they will gain insights into the process of historical research. Their transcriptions will make (parts of) the vast archive of handwritten resources held by the museum’s archive, accessible for further research.

This year, the course will take a closer look at a hand written travel report by Richard Schomburgk (1811-1891), who accompanied his brother Robert Schomburgk on a British-Prussian expedition to British Guiana from 1840 to 1844. Later, in the context of the political turmoil of 1848, Richard Schomburgk and his brother Otto Schomburgk emigrated to Australia. Near Adelaide, the brothers founded a settlement called Buchfelde. Richard Schomburgk became the director of Adelaide Botanic Garden in 1865.

The course consists of three parts. During the first couple of sessions, the participants learn to write and read German cursive script (Kurrent). Subsequently, the participants familiarize themselves with the digital tool “Transkribus”, which is getting more and more relevant for museums and archives. Transkribus converts handwritten text into machine-encoded text and therefore assists in the rapid transcription of large quantities of documents. Finally, the participants transcribe parts of the travel report written by Richard Schomburgk on his journey in British Guiana.

On 8 April 2022, the first meeting of the course took place and I was able to join as a participant and student assistant researcher. During the first session, we had the chance to practice writing our names in German cursive. Our individual skills prior to the beginning of this class, turned out to be quite varied. Some participants had been taught Sütterlin script, a modern variation of German cursive (Kurrent), at school. They definitely excelled at this exercise in calligraphy. Others, including myself, took their first shot at writing in German cursive and produced rather wobbly but improving letters. Thus, as students, we benefited from the opportunity learn in a more diverse group than in usual university contexts. Overall, participants differed not just in terms of experience, but also regarding age, profession and motivation for visiting the course. Among us were pharmacists, engineers, educators, literary scholars, etc. Some were hoping to learn an essential skill for their research, while others wanted to read old cookbooks or family letters. Yet we all share the desire to gain a new ability that will help us work with material that is otherwise difficult to access.

Anna Rudi


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