Through sharing knowledge and supporting each other, our transcription volunteers have achieved more than anyone hoped and formed a fantastic community says Molly O’Doherty. 

Strange illnesses, peculiar names, gripping dramas and long-lost relatives. These are just some of the things we have encountered on our volunteer transcription project this year.

Through our Voices Through Time: The Story of Care programme we are transcribing thousands of pages of digitised records from our Foundling Hospital archive. Since we launched the transcription project, more than 30 volumes of records have been transcribed, with over a thousand pages completed. What has made this possible, is not only the hard work and persistence needed for transcribing, but the cooperation and collaborative approach of our amazing community of volunteers.

The start of this collaboration kicked off with the pilot phase of the project. We tested the transcribing task and the platform we are using Zooniverse, a people-powered research platform with a group of willing ‘tester’ volunteers. This involved transcribing the records from the Foundling Hospital’s infirmary, where children went to be treated and heal when they became ill.

Smallpox, the King’s Evil, Sore Head and Affliction of the Heart where just some of the intriguing illnesses they waded through as they transcribed. But more importantly, these initial tester volunteers gave us vital feedback. They tried out the transcription task, telling us what worked and what didn’t. When they lost a page transcribing or struggled to make out a curious symbol on the page, they let us know. Equally, when they found something interesting in a record, or found our guidance useful, they fed that back. From their feedback, we were able to build a functioning project that hundreds more volunteers could take part in. This couldn’t have been done without the cooperation of these tester volunteers.

The success of this pilot phase then meant that we were able to launch the project in February 2021. From then on both those who’d been tester volunteers and new transcribers began to develop the project into a real community.

Each week, our project message boards buzz with questions and curiosities about the Foundling Hospital history, along with calls for help and groans of frustration when a technical difficulty emerges.

Once they’ve transcribed, volunteers share their knowledge and tips with each other in the message boards, offering support with practical transcribing problems and fuelling discussions about intriguing records. The result is an online community where we all feel supported and stimulated as we engage with the records. This is more than we could have ever hoped for when we started the project, and makes the experience about so much more than just the task of transcribing.

Since it has been running we have transcribed a variety of different record types on the project, including letters from mothers seeking admission for their child; records relating to the ‘foster family’ that each child spent their early years living with; admission registers and minute books detailing decisions made, and matters dealt with, by those managing the hospital.

As this is the very first time that many of these records have been transcribed, new things are being discovered in them all the time. By sharing together what they find in the records, transcribers have been able to reveal huge amounts about the Foundling Hospital. They’ve found the stories of Foundling pupils and their mothers; the curious names and practices used by Foundling staff; details about the social history of the time and even the ancestors of other volunteers! Not only that, but they have been working together as a team to sort records into collections, so that connected records can be grouped together and organised and found by name and date.

The best thing about the Voices Through Time transcription project is that it’s not just a transcription project. It’s about community, connection and passion for history and the Story of Care. This is all down to the collaboration and team-work of our terrific transcribers. It’s a pleasure being able to support and work with them.

Interested in learning more about the transcription project or volunteering to transcribe the records? Find out more here.