Heather Home and Jeremy Heil of Queen’s University Archives kindly took the time to answer questions from Sara Brumfield of FromThePage, and discussed their project and experience using the platform.
Heil is the Digital and Private Records Archivist for the Archives, while Home serves as their Public Services and Private Records Archivist.
First, tell us about your documents.
We have a wide variety of documents on FromThePage that were chosen for different reasons.
We are an institutional University Archives, but we are also a community member and serve as a regional repository for local donors. We serve many diverse communities.
During these trying times, where large numbers of our communities are restricting their movements and spending more time at home, we wanted to have documents that appealed to a wide audience – hence we have early administrative records of the University, minute books of our City Council, and individual diaries and journals written by witnesses of Kingston’s past.
Currently we have the following on the site:
Queen’s University Senate Minutes: The Senate is one of the university’s two primary governing bodies and dates back to the beginnings of the University; items to be described are volumes of Senate meetings minutes.
Alma Mater Society Court Minutes: The oldest student association in Canada, the Alma Mater Society (AMS) has been the central student organization at Queen’s since its founding in 1858. The Society has had a non-academic court system in place for many years. The item to be described is a volume of minutes from AMS court proceedings in 1925.
The Domesday Book of Queen’s University: The Domesday Book of Queen’s University was established by Queen’s Trustees in 1887, at the suggestion of Chancellor Sanford Fleming, to record the names of the university’s benefactors and the main events in its history, which were to be written into the book every year. The items to be described are the two handwritten volumes of the Book.
Ballingall Diary – Fifteen Months on Lake Ontario Upper Canada in the years 1841 & 1842: Captain David James Ballingall (1798-1864) was commanding officer of the Woolwich Division of the Royal Marines. He was stationed at the naval dockyard in Kingston in 1841. The item for transcription is an original diary created by Ballingall during his time in Kingston that includes sketches by C.D. Shanly and Lady Alexander and vignettes about the pirate, Bill Johnston, and indigenous peoples at Cataraqui River.
Kingston Driving Club Minute Book: Not much is known about the history of the Kingston Driving Club (also known as the Kingston Sleighing Club) other than what appears in this record. There is reason to believe that it may have existed before and after the dates of these minutes (1849-1851) but nothing definitive is known. The item for transcription is a detailed book of the proceedings of the Kingston Driving Club from 26 December 1849 to 7 February 1851. The proceedings were predominantly written in prose, though occasionally in verse, by the Vice-Presidents of the Club; the role of Vice-President rotated at each meeting.
The subject matter of the minutes is heavily weighted towards the social aspects of the meetings and often touches upon the route travelled during the outing, the food and drink served, the abilities of specific drivers and the qualities of various horses, harnesses and sleighs.
Kingston City Council Proceedings (2 volumes) 1886-1897
Severus William Lyman Stretton Journal: Severus William Lynam Stretton (~1793-1884) obtained a commission in the Nottinghamshire Militia in 1810. He was severely wounded at the battle of Vittoria, 21 June 1813, and returned to England. After receiving medical treatment, William sailed for Canada in May 1818.
A number of other colonial posts were attended over the next 20 years, including Nova Scotia. The item to be transcribed is a journal/commonplace book containing roughly 40 pages. The content is varied and the book seems to have been used and reused at different points in Stretton’s travels as there is a mix of European drawings with those of Canada. There are eight documentary pen and ink watercolors depicting Canadian content, snippets of recorded weather, a recipe for lavender water, clippings on various subjects (curling being one), and a rather lengthy report of the Halifax Sledge Club from 1843.
What are your goals for the project?
I think those of us using this service probably have the same general goals in mind, which is to make material more accessible, searchable and useable.
We want to foster research, reveal information and highlight materials that are often thought to be “hidden” due to the fact that their contents are not easily searchable in the manner to which people have become accustomed.
Our goals are to make primary sources unique to Queen’s University more accessible to all, and to enhance remote research, teaching, and coursework opportunities for our faculty and students, this year in particular, while almost all course work is being delivered remotely.
How are you recruiting or finding volunteers/collaborators?
I think the official term is the Faberge Organics Recruitment Method – “and they told two friends, and they told two friends”.
Seriously, while we do rely on word of mouth and a certain snowballing effect, we reached out to a number of faculty members and graduate students who we thought might have interest in our first offering of materials, as well as asking them to think about future submissions that will be of use to their research and practice.
We also received coverage within the University’s Alumni publication, The Queen’s Review. We are currently advertising for a student position who will be more active in building and maintaining our relationship with transcribers. We hope to take advantage of the interesting built-in options that FromThePage offers in this regard.
We also reached out to our community members through our local museums association, our Cultural Services colleagues within City government, our partners in community heritage organizations, and even the local seniors’ magazine (seniors are great at reading handwriting).
We have talked about the possibility of partnering younger students with members of a local seniors’ association to foster an intergenerational dialogue. We’ll see if we can actually get around to that this year!
Can you share your experience using FromThePage?
From an administrator’s perspective, this had to be one of the easiest platforms to start up.
We signed on for the trial subscription for testing purposes with one staff member tasked with doing the transcription. We started with a single PDF of 250 pages, just to gather some opinions on the user interface and working with the data before and after transcription.
It took all of 10-20 minutes to get our account and project started, and our transcriber was on shortly after – she even managed to transcribe 20 pages before the end of the first day!
We looked at other software, but really could not see us getting up and running as fast as we could with FromThePage. Once we decided to officially subscribe, it looked like a flick of the switch from our end – and we were ready to go with the next collection and assorted works.
The dashboard and summary give us some great stats, and let us know who our most active volunteers are.
How does FromThePage & crowdsourcing fit into your archives’ mission?
We made some attempts in the past (as long ago as 2008) to engage in crowdsourcing projects through wikis and other social tagging software for photos and documents. These were met with only mild success, coupled with way more headaches than it was worth for a small staff of archivists to maintain and monitor.
We knew there was value in crowdsourcing, and we have since focused on a number of ways to improve the discoverability of our immense holdings through a new database and increased digitization projects, and occasionally highlighted through social media and exhibits.
Where we found our strategy lacking was in transcription. Volunteers and genealogical associations have been transcribing some of our material over decades (a diary here, a cemetery index there), and these have proven very useful to researchers. Now, we can leverage the power of a whole world of volunteers to spend a few minutes here and there in a week to significantly improve the accessibility of our holdings.
When we first started looking at transcription services and software, one intent was to ensure Library staff who were working from home in a pandemic would have something substantive to do … just in case they ran out of work.
But more importantly, we wanted to enrich our digitized collections, improving both the searchability and the accessibility of our records. This last improvement is a notoriously difficult thing for most archives to do, but here we have a way forward to address accessibility issues, and have full text available for screen readers once transcription is complete.
What would you tell folks considering a similar project?
Have you digitized some files or volumes containing rich information?
Want to maximize your efforts, engage your researchers, and enlist an army of volunteers the world over?
This is really such an easy way to do all of that!
Honestly, the barrier-to-entry is almost non-existent, and the rewards can be seen almost immediately. Just start with some high-profile material that speaks to a ready community of users. This can both generate excitement and interest among these communities, while also becoming a source of transcribers!
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
Sara and Ben have been the most wonderful team to work with as we started up. They have been responsive to our questions, incredibly helpful getting us up and running, and just all around lovely people.
In the span of only a few weeks, we had a steady stream of volunteer transcribers flocking to our page without us even lifting a finger! We were amazed at how easy it was to move from a crawl to a sprint – 41 transcribers and 24 editors currently work on our various collections, and we only started in July!