July 19, 2010

Transcribe Victorian era letters

Letter from John Henry Newman to Henry Edward Manning, postmarked Sept. 10, 1856.

Tucked in the chilly archives room at Pitts Theology Library, Florence Nightingale exchanges pleasantries with Henry Edward Manning in a letter dated July 8, 1836.

Unfortunately,  the celebrated nurse’s swirling penmanship on an index-size card leaves much to be desired. Is she referring to animals or arsenals when she invites Manning, who later became an influential cardinal, to tour her hospital? 

In an effort to digitize its expansive collection of manuscripts, broadsides and personal notes from two leading Roman Catholics of the Victorian era — Manning and John Henry Cardinal Newman — the library is recruiting volunteer transcriptionists to decipher documents and make them accessible to a wider audience. The move comes as Newman is scheduled to be beatified by the Catholic Church in September, the third of four steps in the canonization process. The Pitts library is planning an exhibit to honor the event.

Meanwhile, the substantial digital effort, consisting of hundreds of documents processed over many months, will reach beyond academia to members of the public fascinated with the “who’s who” of the Victorian period. Both cardinals hobnobbed with the intellectual elite, including Coventry Patmore, a notable English poet, British theologian Henry Parry Liddon and four-time British Prime Minister William Gladstone.

“This is Emory’s gift to the world,” says Pitts Theology Library Director Patrick Graham, professor of theology. “These volunteers are making a contribution to scholarship.”

Graham estimates that many letters the size of a note card will take roughly 30 minutes to transcribe, while a four-page sermon could take two hours. All materials to be transcribed are in English, and at least two volunteers are assigned to each document to reconcile discrepancies. Later, volunteers may be involved in writing up background information to accompany the text of the scanned images on the library website

“Since there is not enough grant money to do all this work,” explains Graham, “we hope to enlist an ‘army of editors’ to help mediate manuscripts and other treasures from Pitts special collections to the international community.”

Only a handful of Manning and Newman documents in Emory’s collection are now available online and searchable by Google’s web crawler, thanks to a devoted group of volunteers. Manning’s materials alone represent 12 cubic feet of space at Pitts, after Emory acquired one-third of his personal papers from a British antiquarian book dealer.

Manning’s papers reflect on his time as a minister in the Church of England, his conversion to Catholicism in 1851, his social activism and his leading role in the adoption of the doctrine of papal infallibility, a belief that God protects the Pope from error when he speaks about faith or morality. The library also holds an impressive stash of “calling cards,” the Facebook for Victorian high society.

Judged in isolation, some of the materials may appear insignificant. But, taken together, they form a contextual framework for academics seeking linkages in their research, says Robert Presutti, Pitts curator of archives and manuscripts.

“Anyone can view these documents,” Presutti says. “We’re creating connections outside of Emory’s gates.”

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Related Information

  • For more information on how to volunteer, e-mail Pitts Theology Director Patrick Graham.