Volunteer transcribers delve into Mayr Library field notes

Thanks to the help of remote volunteers, we’ve just reached a milestone in our effort to digitize the collection of ornithologist William Brewster: Brewster’s mostly handwritten journals (1871-1916) are now fully transcribed! The Brewster collection, held in the Mayr Library’s Special Collections, includes his journals, diaries, other notebooks, photographs and correspondences, which at this point have been fully digitized. Adding these images and transcriptions to the Biodiversity Heritage Library is an ongoing project. 

We upload images of the documents to DigiVol (a crowd-sourcing platform developed by the Australian Museum and the Atlas of Living Australia) so that a community of volunteers can work remotely to transcribe the text and extract data on biodiversity. Our volunteers --mostly based in Australia, due to the origin of the DigiVol website-- have spent countless hours transcribing Brewster’s observations on New England ecosystems.

Decorative title page from William Brewster’s first journal, dated May 27, 1871, shortly before his 20th birthday. The journals span 45 years to 1916, a few years before his death in 1919.
Decorative title page from William Brewster’s first journal, dated May 27, 1871, shortly before his 20th birthday. The journals span 45 years to 1916, a few years before his death in 1919. Contributed in BHL by the Ernst Mayr Library.

Transcribing manually can be a real challenge: Brewster’s handwriting is often difficult to decipher, and the pages are full of unfamiliar local species, landmarks, and out-of-date scientific names. Despite these difficulties, volunteers have tackled this long-term project with dedication. Take for example Angela Tam, a volunteer from Hong Kong now living in Sydney, who transcribes as a way to practice the English language - bringing a new layer challenge to the task.

Volunteers on Digivol view images of documents to transcribe, such as this
diary from 1872. 

Marie and Ross Davidson, a retired couple living in Brisbane, learned about DigiVol two years ago from a local newspaper article, and since then they have completed over 43,000 ‘tasks’ on DigiVol. They have both worked on the Brewster journals as well as other projects on DigiVol, but Marie in particular “fell in love with the Massachusetts woods and their birdlife.”

“We had travelled a little through Massachusetts on holiday, and we already had a literary image [of historical New England] in our heads before Brewster captured our interest, but it was Brewster who fleshed it out,” explains Marie. Marie and Ross have enjoyed Brewster’s journals so much that they welcomed this opportunity to share their reflections with us at more length.

“We had much to research,” Marie says. “These weren’t our birds and they weren’t our place names. Brewster had idiosyncratic handwriting, and for Aussies, a different vernacular and spelling. I found myself enjoying such unlikely material as pages from 'The Auk', for instance, a journal of ornithology which in part owes its existence to William Brewster. Ross and I looked up many maps. We amassed long lists of scientific and common names for Massachusetts birds – both migratory and resident. In little time, we could roll off Cotile riparia [an outdated scientific name for Bank Swallow or Sand Martin] with confidence. We watched YouTube to listen to a Bittern pumping, all the while wishing that Mr. Brewster had included a photograph of the one that appeared every year on the stone wall in Concord.

American Bitterns (lower half of illustration) and Red-winged Blackbirds (upper half of illustration, male left and female right). Struder, Jacob Henry. The birds of North America. 1903. Contributed in BHL from Smithsonian Institution Libraries. 

“Brewster was a disciplined observer. We easily followed his days, even anticipating the daily weather report that introduced so many pages. There were lilacs at the back of his farmhouse in Concord, tall elms at the front. Birds sang underneath his chamber window. He had a berry pasture and a productive orchard. He and his workmen built roads into his woods, listening out for bird song as they did so. He planted wildflowers along the way. Most days he walked to and from his landmark hills, with their pines, oaks and maples and abundant bird life. He easily convinced us of the significance of the river meadows and of course the woods themselves. 

"We followed his observations with great interest. The advent of photography meant that eventually he had no need to shoot birds in order to study them. He acquired binoculars, which surely helped his poor eyesight. He progressed from handwritten to typed pages. Nomenclature changed as birds were reclassified. Cars replaced horse drawn carriages; steamers plied the lake [Lake Umbagog, Maine]. The railway and the telephone came to Concord. While he enjoyed the convenience of these changes, he predictably fussed about their potential to harm his beloved region. 

Brewster's recorded field data, like this list of bird sightings from the1907 journal, presented a particular challenge for transcribers.

"We enjoyed reading of his close association with scholars and his determined efforts to have ornithology take its rightful place among the sciences. He valued local knowledge. He knew some of the old-time woodsmen personally – men who had worked among the trees all their lives, men whose livelihoods would inevitably be altered by the advances that came to Concord. He maintained lifelong friendships with his neighbours. He was aided in his work by his indefatigable assistant, Gilbert. In time, we added a biography of Gilbert to our reading list. Transcribing the Journals was like that – there was always something extra that was fascinating to learn about. Brewster’s journals are absorbing. The principles which underpinned his work were progressive. He wrote with clarity and charm. We were lucky to have found him.”

We also have been lucky! Many thanks to the volunteers far and wide who have carried this project along, and to the Digivol team for making this possible. Our next step will be to continue transcription of Brewster’s diaries, and eventually start chipping away at his correspondences. 

- Elizabeth Meyer, library project assistant