How to build a community of collaborative transcription? Feed-back from an on-going project

(Part 2)

Although we initially thought that the Ethiopian community would find something to satisfy its curiosity, it was clear that after the initial encouragement and praise following the announcement of the project, few accounts were created by researchers within the community. Other channels had to be found to pique curiosity.

Organising Transcrithons to Meet the Transcribers

One of them was to organise transcrithons, i.e., moments of collective transcriptions on the model of hackathons. Organised over a day or half-day, they were the occasion to present the project to a specific community and then to transcribe jointly for a few hours. Four events were organised between July and December 2021. The first one gathered colleagues and students working in the field of Ethiopian studies. It was face-to-face and online, with a half-day presentation of the project, the videos of which are accessible on Internet Archives, and a half-day transcription session. It was attended by about fifteen people, and the results were presented here. Two of the participants in this first transcrithon, Yvonne Treis (linguist, CNRS) and Dominique Harre (independent researcher), were later to become pillars of the transcription team, but let’s not jump ahead.

This first transcrithon that collaborative tools designed to work collectively online are also quite effective for collective face-to-face work, which is never unpleasant, especially in July when you can have a picnic on the grass during the lunch break and then drink beers on the terrace at the end of the day.

First transcrithon at Campus Condorcet in July 2021 gathering scholars working on Ethiopian Studies.

The second transcrithon brought together library professionals and was not specific to the d’Abbadie project. The third transcrithon, in November 2021, was dedicated to the Antoine d’Abbadie project, and brought together specialists in non-Latin linguistic cultural areas. Very interesting was the work done with and by Arabic speakers, one of whom, El-Houssaine Oussiali (CNRS), became a regular contributor to the project.

Finally, the fourth and last transcrithon to date took place at the BnF’s DataLab. Here again, although it was an opportunity to present the project within the institution itself, it was also an opportunity to meet Elisabeth Gervais-d’Abbadie, a descendant of the d’Abbadie family who, by an extraordinary coincidence, had already spontaneously and solitarily transcribed thousands of pages of Antoine d’Abbadie’s family correspondence. She was therefore already an expert palaeographer of our scholar’s handwriting!

#mardidabbadie: the Weekly Rendezvous of the Faithful    

In January 2022, we decided to set up a weekly meeting on Zoom so that the most active members could get together. About ten of us met every Tuesday from January to July 2022. It was the occasion for many discussions on the content of the notebooks and on the best way to transcribe, in particular with a view to preparing the edition. Each week, a tweet with the keyword #mardidabbadie summarised one of the elements highlighted during the session (twitter @TranscrireAdA).

The weekly online meeting.

Still some super-transcribers prefer to transcribe alone: their relationship with the text expresses itself differently. 

Lone Super-Transcribers

The “super-transcribers” were named so by Fabrice Melka, the creator and manager of Transcrire, who has observed the addictive or meditative aspect of transcription on some people who spend a few hours every day on the platform Transcrire. In addition to the team mentioned previously, Antoine d’Abbadie’s project has had three solitary super-transcribers! One is William Ellisson, to whom we owe the very complete Antoine d’Abbadie entry on Wikipedia. A retired research director and mathematician, his habit of transcribing and his interest in Antoine led him, in May 2021, to transcribe almost entirely (except for the passages in Ethiopic scripture or fidel) two notebooks. He transcribed n°269 from the Transcribe platform, but for n°278 he used his own method, namely by importing images from Gallica into wikisource and transcribing from an architecture he built himself.

The other is Françoise Cuzol, a young retired teacher who read the double-page about the project in the BnF’s free magazine while visiting an exhibition there. This made her want to take part in the transcription and for six months she regularly transcribed page after page of the third of the travelogues (267). We communicated from time to time by email.

On Transcrire, each contributor can follow her or his contributions. here the example of Françoise Cuzol's dashboard.

The third is Élisabeth Gervais-d’Abbadie, the great-niece of Antoine. As mentioned earlier, she knew Antoine’ s handwriting very well. She transcribed using a recorder with voice recognition software (used by medical doctors!). She then copied and pasted the resulting text into Transcribe and corrected it.

Then in July 2022, with a thousand pages transcribed and corrected, we changed our method and the HTR took over… I had to be very careful when announcing to some members that they should stop transcribing for a while because artificial intelligence will now finish what we have done together so patiently. Two of them already contacted me to ask when they could come back to work! Most probably the transcribers will soon take over the work when it comes to correcting the HTR!

Further information

Alain, Mathilde. 2021. « Noter, classer, utiliser : les carnets de voyage d’Antoine d’Abbadie en Éthiopie ». Sources. Materials & Fieldwork in African Studies n° 3 : 137-188.

Melka, Fabrice, 2022. “Projet CollEx-Persée Transcrire (octobre 2020 – octobre 2022). De nouveaux services pour la transcription collaborative de documents manuscrits numérisés”. Bilan scientifique, Institut des mondes africains (IMAF, UMR 8171). ⟨halshs-03829289⟩

Wion, Anaïs. 2021, “Transcrire les carnets d’Antoine d’Abbadie #1 – Éléments de réflexion sur le statut des notes de terrain”, in Carnet d’Afriques,

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