Transcription Challenges...

by Jessica Green

In the process of entering data from the Boston Public Library index cards into the FileMaker database, it is certainly possible to run into some problems. One problem that I run into every 75 cards or so is words or whole cards that are unreadable. This can be due to poor handwriting, smudged ink, or ink that is too faded to read. It is helpful to ask others in the office to see if they can decipher the words, because sometimes they are already familiar with the event or person in question and can figure out what it is supposed to say. Other techniques that can sometimes be helpful are to try to write out the word as written or compare the letters in question to other letters on the card or on cards with the same handwriting. Sometimes the process of elimination is necessary, once I recognize that what I thought could be an ‘f’ does not match the letter in other words. If the card really is unreadable, we mark the card as having a problem, so that it can be reviewed later. Through the catalog enrichment process, more sets of eyes can help to solve some of these mysteries.

There is also the problem of incomplete dates. Sometimes dates are written as “6-1-0” or “8/29/8.” Is this 1960 and 1968 or 1903 and 1983? Luckily the collection of Boston Public Library cards we are now in the process of cataloging only ranges from the 1960s to the mid-1970s. Most of the time, the date can be determined by researching when the event on the card took place or comparing the card to other cards about the same event. This is not the first time I have come across documents in the research process that are missing the year, but it is the first time I have come across somebody coming so close to writing the year, but neglecting to include a crucial digit. Sometimes we can be so focused on the here and now, that we lose sense of how future generations will be viewing our archival materials.

Another issue that I come across fairly often is the use of acronyms, nicknames, or incomplete names. Some acronyms are nationally and even internationally recognized, such as M.I.T. or J.F.K., but others are more regional, such as B.R.A. (Boston Redevelopment Authority) or R.V.C. (WHDH reporter Rosemarie Van Camp). When I come across an unknown acronym, nickname, or incomplete name, I first search the database to see if another intern already deciphered it and put the complete name in brackets. If this does not work, I Google it in relation to the other information on the card or ask around the office to see if somebody else knows. Sometimes it is impossible or irresponsible to guess, because the person with the last name White could be a number of different people. Whenever we determine complete names through research, we include them in brackets so that researchers will know that it was added by a cataloger and was not included in the original record.