Citizen Scientists Creating Knowledge: Report on a Collaborative Transcription Workshop – Part IV: The Transcription

During the second half of our workshop we transcribed parts of Richard Schomburgk’s handwritten travel report on his expedition to British Guiana and Brazil. The report was written for the Prussian government, which had tasked Schomburgk with collecting new flora, fauna and ethnographic items for museums in Berlin during his travels. The manuscript was later revised and published in 1847/48 in three volumes under the title “Reisen in Britisch-Guiana in den Jahren 1840-1844” (Traveling in British Guiana from 1840 to 1844). The published version of the report differs from the manuscript. As often in such cases, references to indigenous knowledge have been omitted from the printed text. Thus, the transcription of the manuscript is central to making indigenous contributions visible and exploring the circulation of knowledge.

For our transcription, we worked with the digital tool “Transkribus Lite”, which converts handwritten text into machine-encoded text. This speeds up the transcription process immensely. To familiarize us with the platform, archivist Sandra Miehlbradt introduced us to its basic functions. Under the tab “collections” we found the scans of the travel report provided by the Historical Division (“Historische Arbeitsstelle” or short HAS) of the Natural History Museum, Berlin. By clicking on a thumbnail of an individual scan the “page view” opened. There, we discovered the uploaded documents on the left side and a blank space for the transcription of the right side. We immediately jumped into transcribing the text. Although many of us were a bit intimidated by the new technology, we quickly became quite proficient. The more daring participants tested other functions such as the automatic line and text recognition offered by Transkribus Lite, while others preferred to work traditionally by using Microsoft Word.

Screenshot of “Transkribus Lite”; Document: MfN, HBSB, ZM SI SchomburgkRi, Bl. 3.

In the following weekly sessions, we met up to discuss our transcripts under the guidance of Dr Diana Stört and Dr Eva Bischoff. Each meeting, we first formed small groups and identified problems and questions we all encountered which we then discussed with the larger group. It was during this process, that we realized that Schomburgk must have employed a writer for his report, at times adding single words in his own handwriting. Furthermore, we realized that some biological names of animals and plants had changed their meaning over the course of the last 200 years. Dr Stört and Dr Bischoff confirmed our observations and agreed that this was one of the more confusing aspects of working with nineteenth-century sources.

As students, we benefited immensely from the collaboration with the citizen scientists. For example, they paid closer attention to the script, mentioned animal species and geographic locations etc., and asked more detailed questions about them, thereby encouraging us to do the same. In one case, a retired citizen scientist, who had previously worked on a large edition project herself, shared her experience with us. In turn, we students provided some insight into history as a discipline and helped those citizen scientists, who were a bit shy in using Transkribus.

The transcription workshop ended after ten online meetings on 1 July 2022, but we already made plans for the future. Dr Stört invited all participants of the beginners’ workshop to join the advanced transcription class and keep supporting further research by making handwritten sources available. We students showed great interest in working with Transkribus Lite and are looking forward to more intensive courses in the future. Emerging from our transcription course, new cooperations and contacts were established. For example: On 30 June to 1 July 2022 course participant and PhD student Dorothee Fischer convened a workshop on the topic “’Weder Fisch noch Fleisch’? Tierpräparationen vor 1850 – Theorie und Praxis” (‘Neither fish nor flesh’? Taxidermy before 1850 – Theory and Practice) at University of Trier. Invited speakers were, amongst others, Jürgen Fiebig, Dr Sylke Frahnert and Dr Meike Knittel of the Natural History Museum.

Anna Rudi

Cite this blog post
blog admin (2022, November 30). Citizen Scientists Creating Knowledge: Report on a Collaborative Transcription Workshop – Part IV: The Transcription. Berlin's Australian Archive. Retrieved June 17, 2024, from

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