The 2018 VCU Folger transcribathon

At VCU’s first two transcribathons, participants worked on a wide range of manuscripts without necessarily expecting to complete any of them. VCU’s third transcribathon was different. The Superscripts, VCU’s student organization for paleography, had been transcribing Folger MS V.a.345 for about a year and wanted to complete it at the event. That goal introduced several changes to the format. For one, it gave us a reason to prioritize page spreads that we had not yet transcribed, followed by openings that we had transcribed only once or twice. Participants therefore claimed their pages by selecting a slip of paper bearing the page numbers. Page spreads that had not yet been transcribed were marked in red.

Meghan Kern and Thomas Nelson hold down the Superscripts’ organizational table. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Gabriella Santiago chooses her next page opening. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Uncompleted page spreads. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Recipes were marked in yellow, Latin in blue. Whenever a participant finished transcribing a page opening, she would place it in a cup at the Superscripts’ table and ring the bell. And the crowd would applaud.

Success, full success. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Kate Given and Kate McCallister transcribe. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Cameron Washington, Michelle Mead, and Gabriela Santana transcribe. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Gabriela Santana and Joshua Eckhardt talk transcribing. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Mid-day, the Folger’s curator of manuscripts, Dr. Heather Wolfe, joined us by Zoom video from her office in Washington D.C.—to show us the original.

Dr. Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library, shows the original source to the group. Rachel Rivenbark and Mackenzie Kincaid keep transcribing. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Meta. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Can you see how big this is? Heather Wolfe points out features of the original. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


The modern binding, everybody. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Dr. Kevin Farley, Humanities Collections Librarian for VCU Libraries, addresses the group, after doing much to host the event. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Gregory Kimbrell, Events and Programs Coordinator at VCU Libraries, keeps things running after arranging for the room, computers, and catering. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Multilingual Friend of VCU Libraries Dennis Andersen transcribes alone. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Meghan Kern cuts the cake as Ashley Harden, Chris Alimenti, Jane Harwell, and Gabriela Santana look on. Photo credit: Joe Mahoney. Courtesy of VCU Libraries.


Immense thanks to the Folger Shakespeare Library, especially Dr. Heather Wolfe, Curator of Manuscripts, and Mike Poston, Database Applications Associate; VCU Libraries, especially Dr. Kevin Farley, Humanities Collections Librarian, and Gregory Kimbrell, Events and Programs Coordinator; the photographer, Joe Mahoney; the English Department, in particular Margret Vopel Schluer, Business and Human Resources Manager; everyone who pitched in; the students in all four of the English courses that worked on this project; and especially the Superscripts, who worked weekly on it. We finally did it.


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VCU transcribed an entire manuscript book of poems

123 VCU students

5 community members

1 faculty member

1 remarkable student organization

3 semesters

4 upper-division classes

528 poems

315 pages

161 page openings with writing

445 complete transcripts thereof!

In the fall of 2017, a Shakespeare class started spending one hour a week transcribing Folger MS V.a.345, in order to see what poems there accompany Shakespeare’s second sonnet. The following semester, a class on documentary and critical editing transcribed the poems in the manuscript that had shown up in critical editions. Two other classes resumed the project the next fall. One of them, an introduction to bibliography for Master’s students, transcribed the manuscript’s copy of John Earle’s “CHARACTERS.” The other, a large survey of early modern literature, worked much more broadly thoughout the book.

Over these three semesters, the Superscripts became an official student organization. The Superscripts started devoting weekly meetings to transcribing the manuscript. And they thought that they could finish the task at a transcribathon. VCU Libraries hosted the event, providing laptops, food, and drink. The English Department offered funds for guests from off campus. And the Folger Shakespeare Library provided the images and the online transcription tool. In the final hours before the event, Mike Poston, digital guru of the Folger, added a crucial upgrade to the transcription tool: a IIIF viewer, which made the images of the manuscript much easier to read. During the event, Heather Wolfe, Curator of Mansucripts at the Folger, showed off the original document by video.

Photo credit: Hannah Kilgore

At the end of the event’s scheduled time, the Superscripts were still a few images short of a complete transcript. A few of them relocated to a cramped, glassed-wall room on a quiet floor of the library, and kept working. Before long, they could finally say that VCU had transcribed every word of the book at least once (and in most cases, twice, thrice, or more).

Next month, the top transcribers travel to the Folger to see for themselves the original document that they have come to know so well.



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“Some may helpe with their purses, some with their persons”

As Dylan Ruediger’s new editions of the book show, Edward Waterhouse ended his narrative of the Virginia colony and the 1622 Powhatan assault by appealing to his fellow citizen’s “purses” or “persons.” He implored “euery good Patriot” to consider carefully “how deeply the presecution of this noble Enterprise concerneth” the king, the nation, the economy, and even “the propagation of Christian Religion” (despite the fact that he had just endorsed a violent colonial policy that left no room for any more missionary work). Any good patriot could help. Some could help with their “purses” and some with their “persons”; some by investing, in other words, and some by going personally to Virginia as settlers. Some could help with their “fauour” and “some with their counsell”; that is, some by approving the effort, and others by advising the company. You can find this passage and its complicated context by downloading the photo facsimile here, and searching in your PDF reader for “purses.”



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Waterhouse published!

British Virginia has just published Dylan Ruediger’s two editions of the Virginia Company’s official response to the Powhatan assault on English settlers in 1622: Edward Waterhouse’s Declaration of the State of the Colony and Affaires in Virginia. As Ruediger explains in his fine introductory essay, the Declaration advanced “a new and extremely aggressive ideological justification for colonialism that would shape the Chesapeake for generations to come.” Scholars and students of colonial history have long studied parts of this book in modern editions. Now they can freely access the entire, composite text in a valuable unique copy held at the Virginia Historical Society (F229 .W32 1622). So can you, right now even.

Click here for the small, quick-downloading type facsimile.

And click here for the searchable photo facsimile.

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What if this present were the worlds last night?

As the first election returns were announced, a few VCU students were reading Donne’s “Holy Sonnets” aloud from gatherings that they had recently printed, and just folded and opened, themselves.


The students’ oral performance of the poems was good enough to consider our experiment at least a partial success. We had devoted most of the term to reproducing these poems in script and in print. Students had each copied several sonnets by hand, and at least one of the poems several times over. They had set type from their manuscript copies and made several rounds of detailed corrections. But such work does not necessarily require close or even decent reading. I was hoping that it would at least facilitate good reading. And it seemed to. Students each read aloud the lines that they had personally typeset. We performed the entire sequence straight through. And the students’ reading brought out much of the sense of the poems. They read them well. Then they discussed the sequence of twelve sonnets, its tone and progression, and several individual poems. And, best of all, while everyone was participating, no one was acting as if they hadn’t prepared for class, or didn’t know what we were talking about: they were holding in their hands poems that they had printed, from manuscripts that they had also produced.

But that was nothing compared to what they did next. For this class meeting, I had asked the students to each write a short essay simply explaining which manuscript texts they had followed when typesetting, and which ones the poems’ first printers had used. In order for them to figure that second part out, they needed to use a partial scan from the “Holy Sonnets” volume of the Donne Variorum. Even experts in early modern English literature can find the Variorum’s textual sections difficult to read. So I wasn’t sure that my students would be able to handle them on their own. Nevertheless, I insisted that they, of all people, could understand the Variorum’s textual code. After all, they had personally hand-made their own copies of several of the artifacts featured in the Variorum. So, when the Variorum seems to slip into idiosyncratic code, using certain abbreviations for manuscripts and printed books (namely C2, DT1, H6, and A), it’s referring to artifacts that these students have already hand-made, and to texts that they have already reproduced in rather painstaking detail. For this reason, they should have been able to just highlight each instance of the sigla listed in parentheses above, and follow the part of the textual scholarship required to write the essay. And they could, and they did. And I think that they would have had a much harder time doing so without having first done all that copying and printing.

I think it’s safe to say that this is the last thing that we did before realizing to what Donne and his contemporaries’ qualified and critical support for the Virginia Company would lead, roughly 400 years later.

The scene around Hibbs Hall, when we leave in the 10:00 PM hour, is usually bustling, if not jubilant, with (no kidding) a crowd of dancers and bikers and pedestrians all along the glowing, book-less addition to the library, with its jumbotron overhead. But that night was quiet, as if most of the people had been swept away or scared off—whether by rapture or deportation, colonization or university expansion, TV or Twitter.

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The fifth of November

At VCU, we commemorate the prevention of the alleged gunpowder plot in 1605 with neither bonfires nor effigies, but with a performance of John Donne’s 1622 “powder plot” sermon, read from Jeanne Shami’s edition of British Library, Royal MS 17.B.XX.


Photo credit: Julian Neuhauser

The congregation members take sermon notes in their own hand-made commonplace books. The setting, off the steps of the James W. Black Music Center (formerly the Grove Avenue Baptist Church), offers our campus’ closest approximation of Paul’s Cross, the outdoor pulpit beside St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, from which Donne preached the sermon 394 years ago. Here is a digital reconstruction of the original Paul’s Cross, initiated and supervised by John Wall at NC State.


So the match with our modern Baptist architecture is hardly exact.


Photo credit: Jon Vacura

But the venue (in combination with the work of Wall and Shami) ought to help students imagine St. Paul’s Churchyard and the experience of trying to follow, and record parts of, an early modern outdoor sermon.

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Both sides.


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Printing corrected sheets

This week we turned this much-corrected forme—


—into much-improved prints, like this one.


At our fastest, we were printing 40 sheets an hour.


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Correcting the proofs

Our first prints revealed a lot of mistakes. We found them by each taking a proof sheet and correcting it in three stages. First, students looked for errors on their own. Next, they referred to the Donne Variorum’s digital images of the first printed edition to learn the editor’s and compositors’ house style, making corrections according to that. Finally, they reread the poems in the Variorum’s images of Houghton Library MS Eng. 966.5, also called H6 by the Variorum editors as well as the O’Flahertie manuscript. And they decided whether they wanted to add any of this manuscript’s readings to the type that was already standing on the press bed. In the proof sheet shown below, one student used three different colors of ink to show these three rounds of correction.


Before using any of the Donne Variorum’s online editions, this student noticed the upside-down comma at the end of line 3 of Holy Sonnet VIII on p. 37. She also spotted the misspelling of the word “Sypmle” in the same poem. Below that, in sonnet IX, she found the made-up words “bwell” and “pierceq,” both caused by the common problem of confusing the type pieces for b, d, p, and q. After consulting the 1633 edition, she noticed that we needed a catch word on the bottom of the page, as well as spaces between the type pieces of “VIII” (we would need to turn each I right-side-up too; that’s why they appear to have sunk). Finally, after looking at H6, she found a question mark to move, some commas to remove, and an important word change, “thee” to “Hee.” Of course, the poem should countenance the possibility, however remote, that Christ’s tongue could “adiudge thee” to hell, not “adiudge Hee” to hell. The student who had originally set the type must have thought the first two letters of the word “thee” in C2 below were a majuscule H (Cambridge University Library MS Add. 5778, fol. 14v; the unpublished image generously provided by the Donne Variorum editors).


It’s an understandable mistake for someone new to such manuscripts. But the student compositor had also set the line to read “adiudge Hee onto hell.” The manuscript above, C2, clearly reads “to.” Where did the student get the longer preposition? It must have come from the other manuscript source that we initially used in class, DT1 (Trinity College Dublin MS 877, Part 1, p. 249; again, the image generously provided by the Donne Variorum). But here too our compositor made a mistake.


To someone new to early modern handwriting, the roundness of the preposition’s first letter might make it look like “onto.” But to anyone with much experience it reads “vnto.” So our sources gave us two sensible options: “adiudge thee to hell” and “adiudge thee vnto hell.” And we came up with the nonsensical phrase, “adiudge Hee onto hell.” At least we didn’t print too many before proofing and correcting. On the proof sheet above, the mistaken preposition did not get corrected. But another student marked both of these errors below.


Together, the corrected proofs gave us a good chance to eventually print something a little more normative, something like “can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell.” More importantly, they also helped the students attend carefully to textual details, using both old and mew media in tandem.


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Replicating manuscripts

Before we could reenact the process of first printing some of Donne’s poems, we needed to reenact the process of copying the first printers’ most likely manuscript sources. So the class divided into groups. We called one group the Cambridge group, or “the Coote group of Bow Street, Covent Garden”—so named for the earliest recorded owner of Cambridge University Library MS Add. 5778 (manuscript C2, according to the Donne Variorum sigla). Like the original printers, the VCU students tended to rely on the text derived from this manuscript when they were typesetting. But neither relied on it entirely. Both occasionally took a word or something from a second text (before taking more from a third, introduced late in the process). No exact match for this second source survives. But one of the artifacts that matches it most closely is Trinity College, Dublin MS 877, Part I (DT1). Here’s a peek at the work of one student in the Dublin group, or “the apprentices of the Puckerings’ scribe”—since this part of the Trinity College Dublin manuscript seems to have been written in the same hand responsible for a manuscript once owned by members of a family by the name of Puckering (Trinity College, Cambridge MS R. 3. 12 (CT1)). So here’s one page spread from a VCU student’s replica of DT1, in Dublin:


This may look impressive (pun intended), but it can’t immediately look as impressive as it is. First, the students in the Dublin group fabricated their manuscript using information from both Mark Bland’s published comments about the book and correspondence with Estelle Gittins at Trinity College, Dublin—in addition to the images available on the Donne Variorum website. You can see printouts from on the left hand side of the image above. So you’re seeing here a partly digital means of reproducing analog media. More impressive is that the student whose work is shown here made her own ink, using both imported Aleppo oak gall and one of the early-modern recipes available here (the one beginning, “Take a quart of strong wine”).


This student also foraged the goose quills in nearby Byrd Park, named for the 17-18th-century British-Virginian planter and slaver, William Byrd II. She then cleaned, hardened, and cut the quills herself before writing with them.


As if this weren’t enough, she had to write left-handed, making it very difficult, and time consuming, not to smudge the ink as the writing hand trails the written word.



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