Code Makers: The Hidden Labour Behind the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Recipe Book Corpus

By Elisa Tersigni

Last week, EMROC published a blog post called “Code Breakers,” describing the efforts of our Before “Farm to Table” project volunteers, who – like EMROC – transcribe our recipe books. This week’s blog post will be talking about our “Code Makers”: Meaghan Brown (Digital Production Editor), Michael Poston (Database Associate), and myself, Elisa Tersigni (Digital Research Fellow), who together devised BFT’s process of encoding—or what happens after the transcriptions are vetted and before they become accessible online. This blog post is meant to be a crash-course in what this in-between stage looks like and why we do it.

What is encoding?

Encoding is the process of applying code to digital texts to create machine-readable texts in order to facilitate computer-assisted analysis. Our encoding is done using Extensible Markup Language (XML), which is commonly used because it is intuitive and flexible. (More on this below.) Encoding might be thought of as functioning the same way that highlighting in a text does. Take, for example, this recipe for “An excellent medicine For any kinde of Ague”:

Fig 1. Recipe “An Excellent medecine,” found on 25r of Medicinal and cookery recipes of Mary Baumfylde (1626, call number: V.a.456)

Let’s say we wanted to encode the recipe’s text to identify easily the title (which we will mark in red), all ingredients (which we will mark in yellow), any person’s names (in blue), and any markers of approval or disapproval of the recipe (green). The colour-marked recipe will look like this:

An XML-encoded version of this recipe might not look much different, except phrases are sandwiched between a pair of tags (a start tag, which marks the beginning of the phrase, and an end tag, which marks the end of the phrase) instead of being highlighted:

<head>An excellent medecine For

any kinde of Ague.</head> <persName>Doctor Costine</persName>

Take <ingredient>saffron</ingredient> one ounce and a halfe and

as many <ingredient>Currens</ingredient> vnwashed as will

beate itt up into a Cataplasme, beat

them well together and putt itt

in bagges of Poulter two to be

applyed one the hand wristes one the

Pulses and the other one the pitt

of the stomach: <tested approved= “yes”>probatum est</tested>

(N.B.: The above tags are for illustrative purposes only and may not reflect actual encoding.)

We use XML because it is both human readable and machine readable: the human reader can intuit that a phrase falling in between the “ingredient” tags is an ingredient. Our encoding is based on the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI)’s Guidelines, which is an encoding standard that is commonly used for digital humanities projects. TEI is a consortium that collectively develops and maintains encoding standards for texts. Standards are important to ensuring that data is easily shareable and usable by other researchers for other projects. Standards also help with preservation of data, making sure that the data is useable for as long as possible.

Why encoding?

Encoding permits computer-assisted reading. For instance, if all the recipe titles in a book are marked as “head”, we can generate a list of all recipe titles by extracting everything between the “head” tags. If recipe titles are marked in 20 different books, we can generate a single list of all recipe titles, or we can generate 20 lists of recipe titles and compare those lists against one another to see if there is any overlap between books. Or, if we mark the recipes as having some evidence of being tested and include details of whether the recipe book user expressed approval or disapproval of the recipe, we can extract all the recipes of which users approved or disapproved.

Encoding doesn’t just help users perform searches; it can also help software development. For example, if—instead of marking titles, ingredients, and people’s names—we instead marked the structure of the manuscript—line beginnings and endings, underlining, formatting—high-quality encoded transcriptions can be used to create or improve Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) software for manuscripts.

What are we encoding?

Because encoding requires interpretation, it is time consuming. And because encoding is flexible, it is prone to what is called ‘scope creep’—that is, the tendency for expectations and demands to increase over time, thereby slowing down a project. Our encoding must balance breadth (the number of manuscripts we encode) with depth (the amount of encoding we complete in one text). To strike that balance, our project began with a trial period, in which we tested how long it would take us to encode certain features, such as including both original and modern spellings in transcriptions.

Our trials helped us decide to prioritize the identification of the basic structure and details of the texts: where recipes start and end, the names of people identified in recipes, the names of locations identified in recipes, and whether recipes were tested and approved. These details will help us to do some basic network analysis to reveal some of the relationships between our recipe books: who owned them, where they came from, and whether recipes are shared across time and space.

For example, by searching the term “lady” in the Folger’s Luna Digital Image Collection, which currently has searchable text versions of some of our manuscript books, I was able to discover that variations of “Lady Allen’s water” appear in at least half a dozen of our manuscript recipe books from the 17th century: Jane Staveley’s receipt book (V.a.401), Susanna Packe’s receipt book (V.a.215), Lady Grace Castleton’s receipt book (V.a.600), and two anonymous books: V.a.563 and V.b.363. This phrase does not currently appear in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and appears only twice in print, according to searches of the Early English Books Online (EEBO) database. The ability to search quickly not only helps answer research questions but can also point researchers in to new research questions: what is “Lady Allen’s water,” from where did the recipe originate, and why is it commonly recognized in manuscript receipt books but not in print recipe books?

How can I learn more?

If you’re a graduate student who is interested in our project, consider applying for our funded graduate student workshop, Eating Through the Archives: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Early Modern Foodways. If you’re interested in volunteering for our program as a Code Breaking transcriber or a Code Making encoder, contact Heather Wolfe at hwolfe [at] folger.edu. You can also read our research updates by following @FolgerLibrary or @FolgerResearch on Twitter or reading our scholarly blogs The Collation and Shakespeare & Beyond.

Elisa Tersigni is the Digital Research Fellow for Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, Folger Shakespeare Library. Elisa tweets as @elisatersigni.

 

Code Breakers: The Hidden Labour Behind the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Recipe Book Transcriptions

By Elisa Tersigni

As many EMROC readers know, a major component of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s three-year, $1.5M Mellon-funded Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures (BFT) project is the digitizing, transcribing, and encoding of our early modern English recipe book collection—the largest such collection in the world.

This builds on the work of our transcribathons—frequently organized by EMROC, often taking place in EMROC members’ classrooms—which are crucial to our project and attract the most attention on Twitter, in part because of the hilarious recipes transcribers sometimes discover in the process (see examples by EMROC members here). Readers may not realize that transcribathons are just one cog in the machine that makes these manuscripts digitally available: every page of every manuscript is triple-keyed by three transcribers; after which the transcriptions are checked for accuracy by an expert paleographer to create a single authoritative transcription; then that vetted transcription is encoded by a team, which includes myself; only after which the transcriptions are made available for teachers and researchers to use. This blog post will focus on the critical but often hidden volunteer transcribers, who dedicate hundreds of hours a year to the project; next week’s blog post will delve a little deeper into the encoding process.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
A couple of weeks ago, I walked into at the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Founders’ Room, where I joined three of the volunteers working on the manual transcribing of the Folger’s recipe book collection. Typing away are just three pairs of the invisible hands working to make the recipe books readable and searchable online.

Nicole Winard is the first volunteer I speak with. A retired public-school teacher and high school librarian, she has been a volunteer transcriber for three years. She’s also the Volunteer Transcriber Coordinator, which means that she corrals the Folger Shakespeare Library’s docents and other volunteers from the community, now spanning the globe. Nicole tells me that she begins each day at her kitchen table, with a cup of coffee and a transcription. When asked how many hours she spends transcribing a week, she is reluctant to answer. “My husband would be more honest about this than I am,” she says. I get her to admit to 20 hours a week on average, though I suspect it might be more.

Today, Nicole is transcribing with Anne Riordan, a retired financial analyst who discovered a love of Shakespeare on a study abroad year (coincidentally the 400th year anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth) at the University of Bristol, and Amy Thompson, a Senior Docent at the Folger Shakespeare Library and a local drama coach. Both Anne and Amy have volunteered as transcribers for two years.

Nicole, Anne, and Amy describe themselves as “like the women in The Bletchley Circle”—the British women who, in WWII, secretly worked as codebreakers. They share a love of crosswords, puzzles, and sudoku. When asked why they volunteer so much of their time to the project, they cite a combination of scholarly interest and personal satisfaction. They are afraid that “ink on paper is being lost” today and want to preserve that information in a new form. They also want to give voices to the women of the past: Nicole says, “so much of what we have here [at the Folger Shakespeare Library] is men. A library dedicated to seventeenth-century writing—it’s hard not to be [man-focused]!” They describe the work as “addictive” and “fascinating,” allowing them a window into the past: “You feel like you’re part of the family when you read a recipe and know what [a mother] gave [her] 10-year-old for the plague. You feel like you’re in the room with them.” They derive joy from learning and contributing to a cause. Still, they are aware of that they are providing a valuable and specialized service at a bargain rate. Amy says of the Bletchley women, “they picked them because they could get women cheaper … we’re pretty cheap, too!”

The transcribers living in the DC area regularly meet to transcribe together in person, typing side-by-side and working on problematic sections of manuscripts together. Other volunteer transcribers include Dr. Elisabeth Chaghafi, a Professor at Tubigen University in Germany; Dr. Robert (Bob) Tallaksan, a semi-retired professor of radiology at West Virginia University, and the team’s Latin expert; the mostly anonymous transcribers of Shakespeare’s World; and the whole crew at EMROC. Since the transcribers work all over the world, most of the conversations happen over email. The emails often relay what Nicole calls the “ews and ahs” of the recipe books. This past week’s emails included a recipe for what one should take “For an Inflammation in the Throat, from swallowing a Wasp in a Draught of Beer.”

Fig. 1 Recipe “For an Inflammation in the Throat,” found on page 35 of Part II of Andrew Slee’s Medicinal Recipes (1654, call number: V.a.398)

Today, as they are transcribing a different recipe found in the same volume, they are discussing what the recipe ingredient “man’s flesh” could possibly be. “Maybe it’s an herb that looks like a penis,” one offers. They all laugh.

The work is fun, but it is scholarly work nonetheless: for instance, in transcribing the recipes, they sometimes find words not currently listed in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) or find instances of words or phrases that pre-date those recorded in the current OED entries. For instance, Bob submitted the word “deege” (probably meaning “a small amount”) to the OED as a possible new word and found a use of “Jesuit’s bark” (in The Conclave of Physicians, 1686) that pre-dates the OED’s current entry by 18 years.

The transcribers have also helped the Folger’s Cataloguers refine the dating of the recipe books by noting internal evidence of contemporary events. For instance, when Nicole transcribed Katherine Brown’s Medicinal and cookery recipes (c.1650–1662, call number: V.a.397), she found written in the margins, “A plot against king Charles” (fo. 42v), “the king to be beheaded to morrow” (fo. 82v), and “Kill him” (fo. 2r). And code breaker is not just a metaphor for this group: Amy discovered that Katherine Packer’s receipt book (1639, call number: V.a.387) contained a code in which some recipes were written. Together, Amy and Heather Wolfe, the Folger’s Curator of Manuscripts and Associate Librarian for Audience Development, broke the code. Amy then made a key and transcribed the coded pages.

Fig 2. Recipe no. 103 found on page 36 of Katherine Packer’s A boocke of very good medicines for seueral diseases, wounds, and sores both new and olde, 1639, call number: V.a.387.

103. an excellent [b]rew

and apro[v]ed caudle to cleans

ye wombe after a childbirth or

miscarrying

take rie and beate it as you

doe wheat for forminty and boil

it in smale ale to a caudle

sweeten it as y[ou] like it wth

suger and drinke of it morning

and at . 4 . of the clocke in

ye afternoone and at night

wn you goe to rest as much as [you]

can drinke at a draught an

if occasion be oftener. /-

[ Transcription by Amy Thompson]

If you’re reading this article and wondering how you can join Puck’s Circle—that’s what I’m calling the Folger’s version of The Bletchley Circle—please contact Heather Wolfe at hwolfe [at] folger [dot] edu. If you’re new to paleography, have no fear: Heather is teaching a new series of Practical Paleography workshops  beginning on Tuesday, October 1 at 2:30 P.M. Workshops will run at the Folger Shakespeare Library every Tuesday in October for about an hour.

This digitization project did not start with the BFT project, nor will it end with the project. We’re hoping that digitization will continue as our collections grow through continued acquisition. Please follow us on Twitter at @FolgerLibrary and @FolgerResearch to learn more, including when we’ll be hosting our next Transcribeathon.

We’d love for you, dear Reader, to join!

Elisa Tersigni is the Digital Research Fellow for Before ‘Farm to Table’: Early Modern Foodways and Cultures, Folger Shakespeare Library. Find her on twitter @elisatersigni.

Jane Dawson Cook-Along

During the transcribathon, the Medical Heritage Library came up with a genius idea: would we do a Jane Dawson Cook Along? The answer to that is a resounding YES!

So, here’s what we’re going to do. Over the next week (22-30 September), some members of the EMROC Steering Committee will try out this recipe for Lemon Wafers.

Take duble refined Suger beatt & dryed & sifted and mix with
it Juce of a lemmon let it be of the thickness of huney & take some
of it in a Spoone & heatd it over a chafin-dish of coles till it be
crisp on th​e​ side of the spoone let it not boyle: when itt is melted
Spred it on a paper out 4 Square: & then pin two Corners together
that it may bend like other wafers; & so lett it dry when you take
them of wett th​e​ rong side of the papers with watter

Jane Dawson, V.b.14, p. 47.

Our assignment will be to take notes of how we decide to interpret the recipe, the ingredients we select, the modern tools we use, the weather conditions (temperature, wind, barometric pressure), the altitude… and anything else that might be relevant in how our recipe turns out. We’ll also taste test (of course!). You can follow our experiments on Twitter as we do them (#EMROCcooks), though we’ll also do an easy-to-read round-up for you afterwards.

Would you like to be involved in the Jane Dawson Cook Along?

We’d LOVE for you to join in. There are three ways to participate in our cook along over the next week:

  • try the same recipe for lemon wafers;
  • test out another one of Dawson’s recipes that intrigues you (full book here);
  • join in the discussion of the EMROC community’s cooking experiments.

Let us know about your kitchen project on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, blog comments, or e-mail (lisa.smith@essex.ac.uk). Our hashtag for all Dawson Cook-Along projects will be #EMROCcooks.

We can’t wait to see what you cook up!

Transcribathon 2018

From Jane Dawson, V.a.14, Folger Shakespeare Library.

On 18 September, we’ll be hosting our annual transcribathon. This year, we’re working on the wonderful Jane Dawson book. It is an interesting example of a manuscript book from the middling sorts, and has lots of food and medicine. Rebecca Laroche discusses the book here.

We’d love to have you join in. Things will be kicking off in the UK at 10:00 (UK-time) and will continue over the next twelve hours. During those twelve hours, we’ll be talking about what we’re transcribing on Twitter, Facebook, and this blog…

If you’d like to join in, please see our announcement here or catch up on Liza Blake’s recent blog post on bringing transcription into the classroom.

To join in, drop me a line in the comments, by email at lisa.smith@essex.ac.uk, or on Twitter @historybeagle.

Teaching Transcribathons and Experiential Learning

By Liza Blake

This post is one of seven scheduled to appear in The Recipes Project’s upcoming September Teaching Series, which focuses on new ideas and strategies for teaching with recipes.

As we all prepare for the next EMROC Transcribathon on Sept. 18, I look back at the role Transcribathons might play in literature classrooms—specifically, in this case, a class on early modern women’s writing (compare techniques here and here).

Interested in bringing transcription into the classroom? It’s easier than you might think, and just as exciting for your students as you might expect! This post describes a locally hosted, teaching-oriented EMROC Transcribathon, and provides some resources for those wishing to host local Transcribathons of their own.

Scene from Toronto Campus

This winter the University of Toronto Mississauga (UTM) hosted Professor Rebecca Laroche to lead a local EMROC Transcribathon. The Transcribathon was made possible by funding from the UTM Graduate Expansion Fund, the UTM Department of English and Drama, and the University of Toronto Scarborough Department of English. Two University of Toronto graduate RAs put time and energy into the event: Melanie Simoes Santos (English Dept.), and Cai Henderson (Centre for Medieval Studies).

The UTM Transcribathon was hosted for the 47 UTM undergraduates in Professor Liza Blake’s early modern women writers course, 307 Women Writers syllabus W18 (abbreviated for sharing).

The course was designed around experiential learning: in addition to the Transcribathon, students also received training in textual bibliography and editorial theory; critically analyzed editorial choices in two women writer anthologies; and each produced an edition of a text of their choosing for a class-wide anthology (conducting bibliographical research, undertaking textual collation, and producing textual and bibliographical introductions for their texts). Students left aware of the work that went into producing their textbooks, and empowered to not just consume but produce those texts themselves.

At the heart of the course’s emphasis on experiential learning, then, was the EMROC Transcribathon, where students gathered together to transcribe, and reflect on the place of transcription in a women’s writing course. For attending and participating in the Transcribathon for at least an hour, and submitting their reflections, students received a grade worth 5% of their final mark.

What does it take to run a local Transcribathon? Not much! The funding sources mentioned above allowed us to fly in and host an EMROC representative (Prof. Rebecca Laroche); reserve a room and provide refreshments; and hire graduate RAs to serve as (paid) organizers and facilitators. But at a minimum, one needs only a designated space and a committed group of transcribers!

Leading up to the event, we talked in class about EMROC, and why so many scholars are invested in transcribing these recipe books. I went over standard transcription conventions, describing the differences between transcribing and modernizing with a handout (Transcription Conventions) and I went over how to mark up with this handout: Dromio guidelines.

I also gave them a manuscript “alphabet”—a cheat sheet (TurnerMS alphabet) showing the manuscript’s particular graphs. These handouts were prepared by Melanie Simoes Santos and myself. Jennifer Munroe has also written on helpful tips for easing students into transcription, here.

On the day itself, the instructions were simple: show up for an hour and transcribe! One student wrote about the experience, “It gave me a surreal sense of intimacy with a woman who lived in a completely different time,” and another was surprised that “the personal grammatical and expressive preferences of the author became familiar to me; … I didn’t expect something like an old cookbook to possess such a distinct voice.” One student said, “It never occurred to me how much work actually goes into uncovering a work, transcribing it, and publishing it in an anthology,” and this insight prompted larger reflections for another student: “Getting the chance to transcribe something makes me think about the relationship that exists between the original work versus the modernized or edited work we see in our anthologies.” The event allowed one student “to reflect … on why certain texts are privileged and transcribed over others.” Another concluded, “I felt like I was contributing to something bigger than just our course.” There were also extremely practical outcomes: “I learned how to make orange pudding and dry figs!”

Anyone interested in hosting a local Transcribathon of their own is welcome to get in touch with me; I’m happy to share funding materials or answer questions about hosting. In the meantime, I leave you with some parting thoughts and tips.

1) Flexibility. Though many students cherished the collaboration of the group Transcribathon, some students had irreconcilable work obligations, so I allowed a few to “check in” and “check out” via email, and send copies of their transcriptions, if they couldn’t come in person.

2) Food. Funding made it possible to have ample refreshments set out for the duration of the event, and many students mentioned how much they appreciated draw of the free lunch.

3) Prizes. A trip to the Canadian store Dollarama the night before yielded us some cheap prizes: e.g., if someone found the word “spoon” in a recipe, they could win a wooden spoon to add to their own kitchen.

These prizes were surprisingly effective motivators for our transcribers, and we’d recommend this practice to others!

4) Beyond? It might have been exciting to try the recipes themselves out, as other Transcribathons have done, or to link the Transcribathon more specifically with a same-day research event. Transcribathons that include linked research talks remind participants of what is at stake in their transcribing labor.