What’s in a name?: Transcription, Research, and Discovery

black and white photograph of Amherst, MA featuring Amherst College, 1800s

As discussed in our previous post about our ongoing Transcription Project, providing transcriptions of our digitized archival materials makes those materials more accessible to our community. We are finding that transcription itself can be an interesting way to engage with these materials. Especially in a correspondence collection such as the Justin Perkins Papers, where our transcribers are often engaging with many pages of material written by the same authors, it is possible to become acquainted with a specific handwriting. 

With new materials coming in perpetually, our archivists have to be incredibly efficient, processing materials as quickly and thoroughly as possible to make them available for patrons. Transcriptionists have to take their time, sometimes painstakingly so, to make sure the results are as accurate as possible. That means working intimately with each item, studying the handwriting, doing research for historical context when necessary, and doing your best to identify each letter, word, and symbol. Words and whole sentences are often redacted, smudged, or otherwise illegible, so gleaning meaning is often difficult. Archivists, Metadata librarians, and researchers often perform transcription on the fly in order to uncover useful information. Rachel Jirka, College Archivist, says:

In the Archives, our work is guided by the principles of Extensible Processing. That means that our work is iterative, and we continually return to collections to revise description and improve access for researchers. A wonderful benefit of the transcription project is the new information that has come to light which allows us to more accurately communicate to researchers what exactly it is we have in our collections.

Recently, Ann Maggs, an Access Services staff member, Music Library Specialist, and avid transcriptionist, was able to identify a signature that appears on multiple documents within the Justin Perkins Papers as Robert Glen. Ann has been a very enthusiastic and diligent transcriptionist, and we are thrilled that she was able to make this identification. A discovery like this allows us to enhance the searchability of these documents. With Robert Glen’s name added to the metadata for these items, researchers have an added access point. If someone were doing research about Robert Glen, they can now search for his name and pull up the items where his name appears, saving them from having to read each and every document in the collection.  

A letter signed by Robert Glen, his signature is rather unclear, using unruly uppercase letters for his first name, and the cursive "Glen" seems to blend in with the "Robert"
A letter signed by Robert Glen

We are very grateful to Ann, and to everyone involved in the project, for your avid interest and your attention to detail. Ann was kind enough to share a statement about her experience participating in the Transcription Project:

I really enjoy transcribing these 19th century letters in the Justin Perkins archives at Amherst College, because it brings me back to reading and understanding personal handwriting styles.  Back in the day, I learned the Palmer Penmanship method of writing in grammar school.  Over the years, I had correspondence with my family and friends in the U.S. and in other countries, and was accustomed to seeing different styles of handwriting. That correspondence pretty much ended when the computer became a work and home instrument, and letters were ‘typed’.

In the 1990’s, after having an Archival Management class in my MLIS studies, I volunteered to work on the family archival letters at Wistariahurst Museum in Holyoke, MA.  These involved 19th and 20th century correspondence of the William Skinner Family (Skinner Silk & Satin) and famous daughter Belle Skinner. This gave me experience with reading and transcribing many different handwriting styles and I worked there into the 2000’s. I was used to ‘unique’ spellings of words and the forms of individual letters.

The Covid pandemic shut me out of my regular AC Music Library work, so I began transcribing the Justin Perkins papers from home in mid-March 2020.  It is fascinating to read about Perkins’ missionary work in Persia and his family and colleagues.

There are also letters about the American Civil War and war in Europe.

Although I am ‘eavesdropping’ on personal correspondence, I hope that my work will be useful to scholars. Once again, I love the challenge of figuring out certain words and phrases, in addition to learning the story.

In Re — my identifying Robert Glen as author of several letters: His first name is a very large ROBERT in several signatures in Box 1, Folder 1, especially on page 82. 

Thank you very much for your interest in my work. Best wishes,

Ann Maggs

Another example of Robert Glen's signature
Another example of Robert Glen’s signature
An envelope addressed by "Mr. Glen" where "Mr. Glen" is much easier to make out
An envelope addressed by Mr. Glen