Category: School Work

Transcribing and Translating Documents in the Archive

Part of my dissertation methodology is to try to use collaboration to provide an increase in usable sources. To accomplish this, I have set up the Omeka archive with the wonderful Scripto tool. This tool marries an Omeka install with a MediaWiki install to provide a nice way to be able to view images in the archive in order to transcribe and translate them. This post shows the process for transcribing a document/image.


First, go to the archive page:

First, go to the archive home page:
First, go to the archive home page:

Next, you’ll want to search for a particular file, or browse by item or collection. The search function is a bit limited at the time. It only searches for text in the titles, tags, and existing descriptions. It doesn’t search for already transcribed text.

Search for an item, or browse by item or category.
Search for an item, or browse by item or category.

Once you find an item to transcribe, click on the image or title to go to that item’s page. On that page, near the bottom, you will see a link to transcribe the item. Go ahead and click on that.

Click the link to transcribe.
Click the link to transcribe.

Now you are on the transcription page. Next you will need to log in. (If you would like to help transcribe and/or translate, send me an email, or comment on this post, and I can set you up with an account. And thank you in advance!)

Log in.
Log in.


Once logged in, the page will be a little bit different.

Find the ‘edit’ link to start transcribing the image.


Notice the tools available for the image. (Move the mouse cursor over the image if you do not see them at first.)

Blue: You can zoom in and move the image around to get a better view of the text.

Red: Enter the transcribed text in the box. When done, click the ‘Edit transcription’ button.

Green: Only transcribed text should go in the transcription box, use the discussion page to enter comments about the item and ask questions.

Yellow: When you are done transcribing, and  have clicked the ‘Edit transcription’ button, you can log out.

Transcription Tools

Transcription Tools

There is more to transcribing that just typing out what you see. Sometimes it is hard to even know what you are looking at. Here are some guidelines and policies for transcribing the documents here.

Policy (taken from the US National Archives and Records Administration website)

  • reserve the right to remove content or comments that contain abusive, vulgar, offensive, threatening or harassing language; personal attacks of any kind; or offensive terms that target specific individuals or groups.
  • will remove content or comments that are clearly off-topic, that promote services or products, or that promote or oppose any political party, person campaigning for elected office, or any ballot proposition.
  • The content of all transcriptions and comments are visible to the public, thus submissions should not contain anything you do not wish to broadcast to the general public.
  • If you provide personally identifiable information such as social security numbers, addresses, and telephone numbers in the comments, it will be removed by the moderator. However, if a document itself contains archival or historical personally identifiable information, please transcribe it.
  • do not discriminate against any views, but reserves the right not to post content or comments that do not adhere to these standards.
  • By contributing to the you accept that other users may edit, alter, or remove your contribution.
  • By transcribing or translating a document, you agree that you will not assert or retain any intellectual property rights, including copyright in the translation or transcription.
  • If you think any of the information in the Archive is subject to a valid copyright claim, please contact me using the Q & A page.
  • When transcribing records, you should make a good faith effort to accurately represent the information contained in the record. If a document or record is not legible in some parts, please indicate with “[illegible].” Please consult the Transcription Tips at NARA for more information.

Below is a handy list of links to help with transcribing German handwriting and transcribing in general


NARA Tips for Transcribing:

Tips for reading old handwriting:

German Script Tutorial from BYU:

Three part lesson on reading German handwritten records, from


Reading Blackletters (Gothic German), just for fun, or in case:

The archive is live

Part of my dissertation is to create an online archive of the documents I find. Thanks to the Hist 698 Digital History Techne class I had with Fred Gibbs this semester, the technical work of this part of the dissertation is now done. I used Omeka with the Scripto plugin (which is really a bridge to a MediaWiki installation) for the archive, and an Exhibit from MIT’s Simile project for a quick and dirty display of data and a map plotting the location of several of the tunnel locations.

Also part of the course, is to give a brief presentation about the final project, which is taken from this post.


I had two goals for this course.

  1. Create an quick and easy way to display the location and information about some of the tunnel sites using a selection of documents.
  2. Create an online archive that would allow myself and others to transcribe and translate the documents.

Part 1

I was to use the Exhibit tool to complete the first goal. Set up was a bit more difficult than planned. I had an Exhibit working for a different project, and was finally able to massage the data into a copy of that code, and integrate it into the website using a WordPress Template.

Map showing the location of tunnel projects in the A and B groups.

This allowed me to display the data in three different views. First is the map, as seen above. I was able to show the tunnels in the two different groups identified in the documents. The A projects were existing tunnels, caves, or mines that were to be retrofitted and improved before factories could be moved in. B projects were to be completely new underground spaces.

The Exhibit also has a table view, showing all of the items with select information for easy comparison, or information retrieval at a glance. For each view, the right hand side provides options for filtering the data. Exhibit uses JavaScript, so with of the data is already present in the page,  filters and changes are applied instantly without any page reloads and slow data retrieval from the server.

A third view shows all of the items separately, with all of the available data.

Ideally, this information would be stored in a Google Spreadsheet to make updating and adding a cinch, but I was not able to get that working, so the data is in a JSON file instead. It would also have been neat to pull the information from the archive. Perhaps that can be built later.

Part 2

I also set up an Omeka install to host the images I had previously digitized from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. I not only want an archive, but also a way to have others transcribe and translate the documents, so I installed the Scripto plugin which is dependent on a MediaWiki install as well.

The ability to transcribe and translate is also an integral part of my dissertation. I want to argue, and show that historical work can not and should not be done alone. One way to do this is to get help from the undergraduates in the German Language program here at George Mason University. The German Language director at GMU is all on board to have some of her upper level students take on translation as part of their course work. This not only helps me, but helps them learn German by looking at interesting historical documents (and hopefully get them interested in history), but also helps future researches to be able to search and find documents easier.

Transcribing and translating made possible by Scripto and MediaWiki.

Historical Questions

This was the hardest part of the course. I’m really good at creating digital stuff because that is what I do all day. But I’m a little rusty on the historical interpretation and asking questions. What also makes this hard is not knowing completely what data I have yet.

Part of the problem with coming up with good, probing questions, is that I haven’t had a lot of time to look at the documents to see what is there. Also, there is not much written on this topic, so I’m kind of figuring out the story as I go. It’s a lot easier to read secondary works and ask new questions, or ask old questions in different ways. But there are no questions yet, except what happened.

The bigger questions, in light of this course, should be about how does this technology that we learned help understand the history, or help generate new questions. Will displaying the data in different ways help me make connections and inspire ideas that I would not otherwise have made or thought? Do the digital tools allow me to process more data than I could do non-digitally?

Another stumbling block (or is it a building block, it’s all about perspective, right), comes from my recent trip to Germany for research. While there I met with Dr. Ulrich Herbert at the University of Freiburg. He’s somewhat of a scholar in the area of slave labor, and has kept up to date on the writings regarding the underground dispersal projects. His wise suggestion for my dissertation was to focus on a single tunnel site, rather than trying to write about the organization responsible for all of the dispersal projects. Such an undertaking would take a life time, he said. So now I need to focus on just one tunnel, rather than all of them. Fortunately, Dr. Herbert put me in contact with the Director of the Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp Memorial, Dr. Jens-Christian Wagner. With his help, I may be able to find a specific tunnel to focus on, and make my trip in July 2013 that much more profitable.

Research Trip!

Not quite the same feeling and fun as a road trip, but fun enough.
Yeah, archive work! Yeah, Germany! Yeah, yeah archive work in Germany! Thanks to a grant from George Mason University’s Provost Office, I just spent the last two weeks in Germany (by myself, not so yeah) doing some archival research for the dissertation. Here are some thoughts on the trip.

The Starbucks with Internet… saved my bacon.

1. Internet!

Make sure you have a good internet connection where you will stay. I booked a decent hotel with Internet included, and free breakfast. The only problem is, the connection to the Internet is spotty at best. I have to get a new user/pass combination to connect to the Internet every 24 hours, too. It’s so frustrating to want to communicate, but not be able to. Especially when you’re trying to get in touch with family back home. So, do some research and hope you get lucky. Also, it is important to know any quirks about the Internet in the country you go to, if going out side of the USA. In Germany, they use 13 channels for their routers, in the USA we only use 11. So if your place of stay uses channel 12 or 13, you’re almost out of luck. You can pick up a relatively cheap USB wireless adapter in the country that should get you all of their available channels. But you will most likely have to find some place with Internet to download software. Enter in the great Internet hubs scattered throughout the world: Starbucks and McDonalds! Even BurgerKing has Internet available. Find out where they are and use them.


Getting ready for Christmas!

2. This is only a test.

Don’t get your hopes up too high for your first trip. I kind of went on this trip with the attitude that it would be a test run of a later real trip. This was possible because I know that I’m coming back in a few months. If you don’t know if you’ll ever go back, then you need to do a lot of background research and contacting before hand. I had scheduled to go to the archive Tuesday through Friday the first week and Monday through Thursday the second week. The first day ended up being a get settled day; exchanging money, finding my way around, finding the Starbucks for Internet, etc. It often felt like I was wasting time, but if you know you are going to go back, then it is time well spent to get your bearings and figure things out. I lived in Germany for two years, but that was a life time ago (like 15 years ago). So I am a bit rusty on speaking German, and German customs, and such. Luckily that mostly all came back easily.

A house divided… will make a good restaurant.

3. Talk to me.

Talk with your contacts before leaving home. Or email them. Let them know exactly what you want to do, what you want to research, where you are going to look, etc. They can save you lots of time. I had one contact at the University of Freiburg, Professor Ulricht Herbert. I met with him twice, and he gave me sound advice. I should have emailed him more often before hand, but nothing really beats face to face contact anyway. My one contact here has turned into two or three. He also helped me realize I am trying to do too much in my dissertation. As it stands, its really a life’s work project. Going through the sources helped me understand that too. There is just way too much for me to be able to grasp it in two years time (my goal). Instead, I’m going to scale back and only cover one tunnel project, and cover that in depth. The reason there is no all encompassing history about the underground projects from World War II is because it was a huge project. Basically the whole of the German economy was turned to focus on these projects towards the end of the War. There is just too much to understand, too many documents to go through, and too much to grasp before this history can be written. That’s why nobody has done it, yet. It would take lots of financing and lots of time. Dr. Herbert suggested four years of work, but only after I had perfect understanding of German, have read all that has been written on the subject so far, and had an intimate grasp of Germany in World War II. That ain’t gonna happen in two years when I have a full-time job, a family, and no financial support. Perhaps that will be my ongoing project as a professor…


Hotel Schemmer. Home away from home.

4. I’ll make a note of that…

Figure out a good note taking routine. I have several hundred documents digitized from another archive already, and figured out a good naming scheme for them. I have a spread sheet for taking notes on each file, and for later import into Omeka for an online archive. This time around was a little different. The Bundesarchiv-Militärarchiv in Freiburg had lots of documents for me to go through. Whereas before it was one collection/folder in one archive, I now had many collections/folders in one archive. So I had to figure out something a little different. I also didn’t have enough money to make digital copies of any of the records I found. It turned out that I didn’t need to make any, but that should be budgeted and planned for as well. There were a handful of documents that I wanted copies of, so I just transcribed them into a word processing document. I thought about making them plain text documents, but ran into a few formatting issues. I chose to make them LibreOffice (OpenOffice) Text documents, because there will always be a program that can open those, and that program is free. Of course, any program nowadays can open Microsoft Word documents, too, and there is no fancy formatting, so that would work fine too. One of my greatest struggles so far is keeping the documents in place chronologically. So my naming scheme for the files takes care of that. Start the name of the file with the year, then month number, then day number (YYYY-MM-DD), and the documents sort themselves! The file viewer (File Explorer for Windows or Finder for Macs) will usually sort by alphabet, so there’s nothing to it. Another thing I did was to go through the documents as quickly as I could. If It looked like it was helpful, I jotted notes about it, or quickly transcribed it. I will be able to go through the notes and transcriptions later to make sense out of them. That leads into the next point.

Trolly going through the tunnel.

5. Plan it right.

Leave a day on either end for miscellaneous things. I unintentionally had a whole day with nothing to do. I was finished with the archives on Wednesday, and didn’t need to leave until Friday. That left me with the whole day on Thursday to tie things up and get ready to leave. I did some laundry, packed my bags and wrote this. It’s also a good time to go through the notes to make sure you don’t forget anything.

6. Enjoy!

The final tip is to just enjoy the time. If you’re in a foreign country, take a day to go see the sights. I had a weekend where the archive was not even open, so I spent the day walking around the awesome Altstadt (the oldest part of town, buildings from the 1400’s!). If you have funding for your trip, just think, who else gets paid to go look at old documents. Man, history is great! 🙂