Letters of 1916 revisited

As a continuation of this post, I want to share my experience of transcribing two letters for the Letters of 1916 project. I believe strongly in this project because handwritten letters and other items from the pre-digital world have taken a special place in my heart of late. For me, letters are records of thoughts and feelings from a distant and different world, and survive now as little pieces of history.

I was first introduced to this project when I attended a workshop entitled ‘Digital Skills for Research Postgraduates in the Humanities and Social Sciences’ (it wasn’t at all as scary as the title suggests).

The project invites members of the public  to upload any letters they may have in their possession which date from this period (ie, November 1915 – Oct 1916), and are urged to search attics, old filing cabinets, and long-forgotten boxes of keepsakes in an effort to add to the already impressive collection, (1600 letters to date). It’s an all-out treasure-hunt, and a wonderful opportunity for everybody to get involved in the first public humanities project to take place in Ireland.

envelope Ireland 1


The first letter I  was worked on was written by S W Griffin to James Smith on February 26th 1916, and concerned  a complaint made by Miss Mary O’ Leary regarding the appointment of Bridget Cremin as dressmaker and nurse at Killarney District Asylum. What really struck me when I read this letter was learning that an ‘Office of Inspectors of Lunatics’ actually existed and that one could be an inspector of lunatics by profession. How times have changed!

My second choice was a letter from Malachy J Kelly to the Administrative Area Officer, and this was a strange one because there was no address, nor any official stamp. Another puzzle was that although the letter was from Malachy Kelly, and bears his signature, the words ‘The Administrative Area Officer’ appear at the end of the letter, almost under the signature, which would seem to indicate that Kelly and the aforementioned officer were one and the same person. I have no idea how to deal with this, and although the site offers very helpful guidelines for transcribing and uploading letters, along with a styleguide for metadata, I found no mention of anything relating to issues such as this one.

The website itself takes a little getting used to. Personally I found it very slow to load – so much so that at times I wondered if I had actually hit the button at all. I suppose this is understandable, given that all the letters are images, and images always take more time to load. I had trouble at first in finding letters which hadn’t been worked on already, not realising that clicking on one of the category headings, (‘Love Letters’, ‘Official Documents’ etc), allows the user to see at a glance those letters which are editable. Of course, it would have saved time if I had read the instructions first…Oops!love-letter-cropped

I would also have like to have seen a really obvious ‘Save’ button at the end of the letter I was working on, instead of one which read ‘Edit transcripts’. Although it has the same function, it’s not obvious enough for the new user. Perhaps this is all down to how slowly each page loaded, but I felt that I spent far too much time overall having to think about what the next step might be. Perhaps the site might benefit from a clearer, more user-friendly interface?  In his bestselling ‘Don’t Make Me Think‘, Steve Krug tells us that when he looks at a webpage he expects it to be “…self-evident. Obvious. Self-explanatory”, and goes on to explain that he (or anyone else) “should be able to ‘get it’ – what it is and how to use it -without expending any effort thinking about it”. For such projects as this, where public participation is heavily relied upon, I think it’s very important to make usability a priority, and to ensure that the interface is as fool-proof as humanly possible.

Having said all this, I did have a great deal of fun with this project, and I found that the actual transcribing part, (the part I had been most wary of), turned out to be the best fun due to the cleverly designed Transcription Toolbar. Both of the letters I happened to find were typed, so I didn’t need to wrestle with deciphering handwriting, which no doubt would be far more difficult. I also found it was easier if I wrote out the letter myself before I started because this dispensed with the need to flick between screens. I will be returning to Letters of 1916 in the future to do some more transcribing, and I’m delighted to have been able to contribute in some small part to this great project.


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