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Volunteer Vignette: Transcribing Spanish History

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The following post is cross posted on the The Signal blog.

In today’s post, Abby Shelton interviews a By the People volunteer, Claude, who has gone above and beyond! By the People is a crowdsourced transcription program launched in 2018 at the Library of Congress. Volunteer-created transcriptions are used to make digitized collections more accessible and discoverable on You can read our other Volunteer Vignettes on the Signal here and here.

Abby: What motivates you to volunteer on the crowdsourced transcription program, By the People?

Claude: I was introduced to the Herencia project by a friend who is a lawyer who thought I would be interested. I began in March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, and it became an addiction. It helped me through those times, and continues to do so now. I treat it as a job, and work on it almost daily, whether I am at home or travelling. Why continue? Because each document teaches me something, and curiosity is essential.

Do you have any special skills or interests that relate to transcribing or reviewing documents?

I grew up in Madrid, went to Spanish school, therefore speak Spanish (of course, but now my slang is very dated). We had to speak English at home, but to this day with my brothers we easily switch from Spanish to English. At school, I studied Latin and Greek, so transcribing the Latin is interesting, especially when accents are used.

Seeing the transformation of Spanish (and Catalan) from the 16th century to the 19th century has extended my vocabulary. It also makes me wonder how decisions are made by the Academia de la Lengua Española in the 21st century as to spelling, meaning, placing of accents, etc.

Another skill that has emerged, was realizing that transcribing Spanish or Latin was not as automatic for my fingers as it is when writing in English. Now, my fingers are faster than my eyes or brain, and they “know” when I have made a mistake.

What have been some of the most compelling or interesting documents you’ve come across? Why?

I loved working on the agricultural documents. It explained a lot of the present landscape of Spain, the relationship of kings and people to the land, and their responsibilities. Others, like marriage documents, kept me going like telenovelas: I had to find out whether the cad married the doncella in the end! Information on the guilds, on who can work in gold, or silver and never shall the two crossover. The importance of scribes.

One document that Grislean Palacios wrote in a blog about drainage in Mexico City, made me gasp at one point, when the writer says that they had to interview old people to find out where the original drains were; they interviewed the grandson of Montezuma! History in your face.

Image of By the People transcription window
A portion of the By the People transcription (right) of “Holographic copy of a report issued by Bernardino Estrada of Mexico city, concerning the drainage system of the lake of Mexico,” (left) from November 12, 1750. (Law Library of Congress.)

In the Wills section, I was puzzled by handwritten ones that were illegible. How did those to inherit figure it out? Several documents on building and rebuilding the canals, or rail lines in Aragon or Cataluña are still in use today. Hard to narrow down.

But so many writers could have used a brutal editor at that time: so many “aforementioned,” “said person,” repetition of paragraphs with one word difference….arghhh. But legal issues do depend on the minutia of language.

Tell us about your recent visit the Library to see some documents from the Herencia campaign in-person. What was that experience like?

Wonderful. Everyone was so welcoming. Seeing the documents in person also lets you examine the bindings, and their scent. I preferred the manuscripts, the great condition they are in, the ink and the corrections and additions.

What advice do you have for new or first-time transcribers?

It is good to familiarize oneself with previous document transcriptions, or handwriting. It also helps if you are familiar with a Romance language. Keep a Latin or Spanish dictionary nearby. Many words may not appear, but will help figuring out their meaning, spelling (more or less), or context. And accents are very important to include, without them researchers can misconstrue meanings or intentions. Find them on your computer.

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