In our Historian’s Toolkit series, we look in depth at one online resource that history professors can use to teach Canadian history. To see others from this series click on the category, “Historian’s Toolkit.”

**Check back on Friday for a special blog post all about Victoria Day!**

What it is: Transcribe is a project out of the Royal BC Museum where the public is invited to transcribe archival documents that have been digitized and made available through the site. Or, to put it another way, crowdsourced transcription! The goal is to make not only a more searchable collection, but also to make historical documents more accessible to the public. When I contacted Transcribe about this blog post, they told me that the response so far has been outstanding, and that they are impressed by the “thoroughness and excitement that fellow Transcribers have brought to the crowdsourced project. We’re so proud to be working alongside so many passionate British Columbians and fellow historians who are interesting in preserving our province’s rich stories and histories.”

As of this writing (May 2016), Transcribe currently has documents in 17 different collections. 10 of these are complete, while 7 contain documents yet to be transcribed. Several future projects are currently in the works, though there haven’t been any official announcements as of yet. The majority of the collections are related to World War One, but there are a couple that deal with life in British Columbia.


How does it work? 

Step One: Select a Collection.


Transcribe - Collections

Once you’ve arrived on the home page, click on “browse our collections.” This will bring you to the page shown directly above. Each photograph represents one collection. The most recent ones are listed first. To select the collection you’d like, just click on the photograph.


Step Two: Select Your Document

Transcribe - Document

Once you’ve selected a collection, you will be brought to a page that looks like this one. Each one of those photographs represents one document in the collection. The status of the document – not started, started (and percentage), or completed – appears at the bottom of each photograph, in green text. Click on the photograph to select the document you wish to examine.


Step Three: Select Your Page

Transcribe - Page


On the next screen, you will see that each of the pages of your document have been photographed. Again, the text at the bottom tells you the status of the page’s transcription. Click on whichever page you’d like to look at.


Step 4: Read or Transcribe

Transcribe - Read or Transcribe

Once you’ve clicked on the page you want, you will be brought to a page that looks exactly like this. If it’s already been transcribed or is in progress, the text will be listed in the box on the right. If you want to transcribe the document yourself, you can use the navigation buttons on the left of your photograph to zoom in or out, or to move the page around. Then click on “edit” in the box on the right, and start transcribing!

The text has to be formatted as a wiki (which makes the text display properly), but there is a link just below this box describing how to do this (this is basically just about proper spacing, italics, etc…). There is also a page on the website with tips for transcription.  You’re all set!


How Can I Use It?

The documents on Transcribe might be helpful for your research if you happen to specialize in British Columbian history. But I think the real value of Transcribe lies in its adaptability as classroom material for Pre and Post Confederation Canadian history classes. The possibilities are endless, but here are some suggestions:

  • You can feature some of the completed transcriptions to add colour and interest to your lecture.
  • You can use these documents as a teaching tool for working with primary sources.
    • If you choose to use documents that have already been described, you can have your students read the selections, and then either discuss them in a group or participate in a think/pair/share exercise (5 minutes where they right down their thoughts, then discuss with a partner, and then discuss with another pair).
    • You can also ask them to consider questions around the subject of historical significance, historical perspectives, and reading between the lines, as well as more specific subjects about the contents of the letters.
  • Or, you can have your students transcribe some of these documents themselves. This is a great learning opportunity for students to learn about historical events using real documents and to see how ordinary people were affected in their every day lives.
    • It’s an opportunity to learn about the simple problems of trying to transcribe old documents, the problems of language and handwriting, and how easy it is to make mistakes.
    • Another interesting exercise would be to have your students all transcribe one document and then compare the results to see if there are any differences.
    • I would recommend booking a computer lab for this kind of exercise, to ensure your students have sufficiently powerful computers.
    • Depending on the material you select and the level of abstract thinking you require, these documents can be used in university courses at all levels.

There is one issue you will need to address before using this material: language. Since these are historical documents, you will find instances of language that is currently considered derogatory and offensive. None of the documents are censored. However, this can present a great opportunity to talk about discourse with your students and the importance of faithful transcription.


Below is a description of the collections and their content available, with a list of suggested topics they can be used for.


To Be Transcribed:

Reverend Robert J. Roberts Journals and Diaries

  • Robert J. Roberts was a missionary, educator, and early colonist who lived on Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands during the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s. The materials available for transcription primarily consist of personal diaries, farm diaries, correspondence, letter books, letter registers, account books and sermons.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, missionaries, industrial schools, farming techniques, First Nations, education, Penelekut First Nation, Hwlitsum First Nation, Post-Confederation Canada

Inquests and Inquiries relating to Chinese Canadians

  • This collection of material was digitized as part of the Chinese Historical Wrongs Legacy Initiative. It consists of coroner’s inquests and inquiries involving Chinese Canadians from 1872 to 1934.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, Chinese immigrants, life in saw mill and gold mining towns, gender, mining, railroads, ethnicity, Post-Confederation Canada, Barkerville, CPR
  • Warning: Detailed descriptions of crime scenes and/or dead bodies.

 Martha Douglas Journal

  • This journal records the life of Martha Douglas Harris, youngest daughter of Sir James Douglas, first governor of British Columbia, from 1872 to 1873. It describes her travels throughout the US, England, and Europe.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, Victoria, James Douglas, gender, colonization, travel, United States, England, Continental Europe, Post-Confederation Canada
  • Note: Only a couple of pages remain to be transcribed.

Alma Russell Letters

  • This collection consists of letters from British Columbia men on active service with Canadian and British Expeditionary Forces during World War One. They were collected by Alma Russell, who worked as a librarian in the Legislative Library in Victoria. Some are written to her, and others were given to her for her collection, which was intended as a wartime memorial.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, Victoria, World War One, Post-Confederation Canada

Arthur Douglas Crease Letters, Diaries and Scrapbooks

  • Arthur Douglas Crease was a married lawyer from Victoria who served as an officer in World War One. This collection contains primarily letters he wrote to his brother, Lindley, who was also a lawyer, and his mother. Many of these letters describe his experiences as a lawyer in military court. Also contained in this collection are instructions for battle and a regimental notebook.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, Victoria, World War One, martial court, families, Post-Confederation Canada

Frank Swannell Diaries: Part I

  • Frank Swannell was already working as a surveyor when he enlisted in World War One. He was married and had two children. During the war, he worked overseas primarily as a map maker. He also surveyed and marked off trenches in France. His diary includes text, illustration, photographs, and memorabilia. He was injured in 1915, and later diagnosed with shell shock; he spent time convalescing in England.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, Victoria, World War One, gender, families, shell shock, surveying, France, England, Siberia, Bolsheviks, Post-Confederation Canada

Henry Masterman Mist Diaries and Prisoners Pie Magazine

  • Henry Masterman Mist had the misfortune of being a British man in Dresden when England declared war Germany on August 4, 1914. Subject to police surveillance, arrest, and imprisonment, he spent most of the war in Ruhleben, a camp for enemy civilians. This collection consists mainly of his diary from this period, and one POW magazine.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, World War One, Germany, POWs



William Law Ogilby Diary

  • William Law Ogilby was a surveyor, homesteader, and soldier who served in the South African War and World War One. This collection consists of his diary from 1892, recording his experience as a chainman (technician who operates instruments and records readings) on a survey of the western boundary of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway Belt on Vancouver Island.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, surveying, railroads, Post-Confederation Canada.

Ellison Family Letters

  • The Ellisons, from Vernon, BC, were a well-known and socially prominent family. All three of the family’s sons enlisted during World War One. While the two youngest sons served mostly in England, the eldest, Price F. Ellison, saw action in France. This collection consists of letters from all three sons – though mostly Price F. Ellison – to their mother and sisters.
  • Possible Topics: British Columbia, World War One, Britain, France, family, Post-Confederation Canada

 Frank Tregillus Letters from the Cariboo Boys

  • This collection consists of letters written by young men from the BC interior to Frank Tregillus. Tregillus was a miner and prospector who lived in Barkerville, but was too old to enlist in World War One. Instead, he watched over the mining claims of enlisted men.
  • Possible Topics: British Columbia, World War One, Barkerville, the Cariboo, mining, Post-Confederation Canada

Deborah Florence Glassford Letters and Memorabilia

  • This collection consists of letters, cards, and memorabilia sent to Deborah Leighton – known as Dodie to her friends – from more than 20 friends and acquaintances who were involved in World War One. This included both officers as well as female volunteers. The authors of these letters were from wealthy and socially prominent Vancouver families, many of whom had British connections. None of Leighton’s letters survive.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, Vancouver, social class, Britain, World War One, gender, volunteering, ephemera, friendships, networks, Post-Confederation Canada.

John Haworth Drewry Letters

  • This collection contains letters written by John Haworth Drewry (“Jack”) to his parents, during his service in World War One. Drewry is notable for being one of the first Canadians to fly with the British Royal Air Force. These letters date from 1917 to 1919.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, Victoria, World War One, piloting, Post-Confederation Canada

Cecil Henry Meares Letters

  •  This collection consists of letters written by Cecil Henry, adventurer, explorer and British naval officer, to his fiancée, Lola Spengler (also known as “Snuffy”). The letters describe his experiences during the war from 1914 to 1918.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, World War One, gender, romantic relationships, England, Post-Confederation Canada

Patullo Family Letters

  • This collection includes letters from James Burleigh Pattullo and George Robson Pattullo to their father. The brothers are primarily known for being the brothers of Thomas Dufferin Pattullo, who became British Columbia’s 22nd Premier in 1933. These letters describe the brothers’ experiences in World War One. George Pattullo served with the American Expeditionary Force, while James Pattullo served with the Canadian Seaforth Highlanders.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, World War One, Vancouver, United States, journalism, families, Post-Confederation Canada

Norah C. Denny Letters and Queen Margaret’s School

  • Norah Creina Denny was a British woman who served as a nurse during World War One. In 1919, came to Duncan, on what was intended to be a “working holiday.” Instead, she remained in Duncan, opening a day school, Queen Margaret’s School, in 1920. This collection consists of letters of recommendation and identification from World War One.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, World War One, nursing, gender, women, England.

 John Moyle War Diary

  • Born and raised in England, John Moyle saw action in World War One with the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. He worked as both a recruiter and in road construction and repair. This diary documents his experiences.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, World War One, recruitment, infrastructure, England.

Erroll Pilkington Gillespie Letters

  • This collection consists of letters from Erroll Pilkington Gillespie recounting his experiences in training camps to his family. Gillespie trained as a machine gunner, but only saw action towards the end of the war.
  • Possible topics: British Columbia, World War One, Victoria, family, training, England.


So that’s Transcribe in a nutshell. I can’t wait to see what other collections and projects are posted to Transcribe in the future. Have you used Transcribe or something similar in your classroom before? How did it go? What kinds of experiences have you had using primary sources in the classroom? Let me know in the comments below!

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