Do you love handwriting and history? The archives has a job for you

Lovers of handwriting have long cursed computers for spelling the end of the ancient craft, but a new crowdsourcing program from the Nova Scotia Archives lets them put their passion for penmanship to work in deciphering historic documents.

John MacLeod, senior archivist at the archives, said they've put scans of many documents online, but reading them can be tricky.

"The handwriting is at times challenging. Increasingly, in a computer world, people's appreciations and ability to decipher handwriting is lessening over time," he told CBC.

Earlier this year, with help from a student from the Dalhousie School of Information Management, the archives came up with an idea to invite members of the public to read the scans online and type a transcription beside it.

Ahead by a century (or two)

A few clicks will get you started. Simply read the handwriting and type the words in the side pane. You can do one line, one letter, or the whole thing. When you've had your fill, click save and the next person can pick up from where you stop.

In some cases, you may well be the first person to read the entire document in centuries.

"There's also an opportunity on the Transcribe website to engage in discussion with other transcribers or us at the archives," MacLeod says.

Try it yourself: what does this section say?

Here's the typed version:

Letter to Lord Falkland.

My Lord,

I have just had a long visit from two very intelligent Indians, and, as I have a leisure hour, would like to lay before your Lordship, before they pass away, some of the ideas suggested by their conversation, and by subsequent reflection upon the present state of the Micmacs, that your Lordship may, if there is anything in them, to aid [?] in digesting, what I know has often occupied your thoughts, some plan for improving the condition of the tribe.

How did you do?

You can zoom in on the text at the Transcribe site, which makes it easier to read the 176-year-old writing. 

For the first batch, the Nova Scotia Archives focused on items connected to Mi'kmaq history, in keeping with the theme of Heritage Day this year.

"We chose Joseph Howe's letter book from the time when he was commissioner of Indian Affairs in Nova Scotia," MacLeod says.

The archives has also put some maps up in the hopes that people will transcribe the place names.

It turns out a lot of people want to transcribe historical documents: volunteers brought 10,000 words into the digital age in the very first weekend earlier this year. "Some people seem to be very rabidly into it," the senior archivist says.

Typing them up means researchers and historians can search by word and easily read sections. The original, handwritten versions will live beside the typed version so that historians can check the transcriptions against the source.

Isaac Dechamps's letters up next

Staff will look over some of the texts and other users can flag errors.

The archives plans to add more colonial materials to give people fresh options. They have documents from Isaac Dechamps, a European immigrant who arrived in Nova Scotia in 1749. He settled in Windsor and traded with Mi'kmaq and Acadian people, as well as with the garrison at Fort Edward. Those will go up soon.  

"It makes the material way more accessible. That barrier of what the handwriting is is no longer there. The second thing is it exposes a wider audience to the things in our collection," MacLeod says.

The archives is open to partnering with schools whose students are eager to tackle letters as projects.