Transcribers Describe their Experience

Catharine Wilson on Her Experience with Rural Diaries

This interview features Catharine Wilson, professor at the University of Guelph and the current Ruth Redelmeier Professor of Rural History. Catharine discusses her time as a student at the University of Guelph, research on reciprocal work bees, and the Rural Diary Archive. The following are a few highlights from the interview and a link to the video itself.

Catharine reflects on her work on reciprocal work bees, including barn raising, quilting, and threshing bees; "There are a number of compelling things about the project, one is that I get to read peoples diaries... that's a great deal of fun."

In discussing her experience with the diaries and sharing them with her students, Catharine mentions that, "I think the best part of my job is watching students get hooked on history... before you know it they feel they know these people and they're feeling emotional about them."

Thanks Catharine for your insight and work on the Rural Diary Archive!

Additional Links:

Full Interview:


Engaging the Past through a Community of Transcibers: The Rural Diary Archive - Erin's Experience

In this blog post on Active History's website, Erin Schuurs describes her transcription experience through her interaction with the diary of John Harrington Ferguson. Erin is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Guelph who works closely with Catharine Wilson and the Rural Diary Archive. The following are a few highlights from the post and a link to the discussion itself. 

In reading through Ferguson's diary, Erin remarks that, "As I began transcribing, I found the process rather time consuming. While Ferguson's handwriting was relatively clear, Ferguson had his own way of writing capital letters and would use short forms to represent names of people and places. Patience was key at this early stage, but as I progressed, I began to recognize the quirks of his particular writing style." 

As many find while transcribing, Erin quickly saw the process as, "unlocking a code and once the diary was unlocked, I started piecing the puzzle together, and I found that I was quickly swept into Ferguson's world."

With an important message at its close, Erin sumarizes that, "Transcriptions are important - they are about preserving our rural history - but they are also about engaging in history in a way that is fun."

Thanks Erin for your insite into the transcription process!

Additional Links:

Full blog post:

John Harrington Ferguson's Diaries:


Transcriber Highlights – Keegan’s Experience

Before exams, Lisa Tubb sat down with classmate Keegan Suepersaud who had invested an extensive number of hours into transcribing a year of Samson Howell’s 1868-1869 diary, while completing his major fourth year history paper on Howell’s diary and rural life. Keegan is from Dorchester, Ontario and is graduating from the University of Guelph this spring. Find highlights and a link to the full interview below.

Keegan comments, “It was an honour to read about how they lived …[and] it was really fun to get into his personal life,” especially concerning his illness. In preparation for his rural history project, which focused on how the Howell family managed their economic well-being, Keegan transcribed a full year of Samson’s account. To make the most of his time, Keegan combined his passion for the Toronto Blue Jays with his work. He comments, “…we don’t have cable, so I was streaming the games, and whenever there was a commercial break I’d just switch the tab over, and do some transcribing.”

While he had no experience with transcribing diaries, Keegan commented that “…it definitely got easier, reading his handwriting, understanding his lingo…it reads itself.”

“It’s a different way of looking at the Canadian past…this is actually where you can read into it, and get your own perspective and view on what Canadian history was actually like.”

Thanks Keegan for a great interview!

Additional Links:

Full Interview:

Samson Howell's Diary, or Biography.


Transcriber Tuesday - Ilsa's Experience:

Earlier this month, Jodey Nurse had the pleasure of speaking with Ilsa Vink who has completed Elizabeth Simpson’s 1877-1902 diary by transcribing over one hundred pages! Find highlights or the chance to enjoy the full interview below.

Ilsa Vink resides in Wooly, Ontario and has “…always liked old things.” Born in Holland, she recalls taking school trips to historic sites where her fascination with history was born.

Ilsa comments, “I loved castles, we’d take vacations to different countries and I’ve always been fascinated with castles and old things but especially how people lived. Not Kings and Queens necessarily but just everyday people. How everyday life happened…It makes history more interesting when it’s more immediate to myself.”

Combined with her love for local history, Ilsa also found transcribing similar to doing puzzles. Ilsa commented, “I’m finding pieces that fit in the story, and I’m deciphering her writing and I want to know what happens, it’s like putting together a big puzzle...”

For first-time transcribers, Ilsa recommends that for unrecognizable or illegible words, patience is key. Often authors will re-use unrecognizable letters in other contexts which may unlock the authors meaning in previous entries.

“At first I was missing a lot of words, things didn’t necessarily make sense. But the more I transcribe, the more I get used to her handwriting, and I can see that that capital which I thought was an ‘F’ no she uses it later and it’s always a ‘T.’  So I’d have to go back and edit a word because I know what she meant.”

Ilsa closed by stating “...Knowing that these people were real makes a big difference… these are real people and they lived real lives with real things…” With Elizabeth Simpson complete, Ilsa looks forward to transcribing her son, Carver Simpson’s diary, whom she described as being a smart, but not incredibly interested student who is obsessed with hunting, a definite character!

Thank you Ilsa Vink for your contributions to the Rural Diary Archive site and for an amazing interview!

Additional Links:

Full Interview:

Elizabeth Simpson's Diary, or Biography.


Exchanging Notes with Team Member Sarah A. Kelly

It definitely takes a while to get used to reading a person’s writing, and you hang on every word, often re-reading it several times to attempt to make sense of jumbled letters. After a few pages though you pick up steam and it’s just like re-reading your own notes. Is this where the intimate relationship between reader and writer begins?

Sarah: This is one of the most interesting parts of reading these diaries! Once you become invested in someone’s diary you find yourself feeling even closer to them by their style and form of writing – I sometimes even develop “their voice” in my head as I’m reading. 

For my generation the art of cursive writing has fallen by the wayside and at times reading and re-reading words to make sense of the scrawl can be frustrating, any thoughts on this?

Sarah: Diary writing can be very difficult to read. They were written in a time when writing styles were different, often by busy people who only quickly jotted their thoughts, and, most notably, they weren’t often written for the purpose of others to read them – so you will often find diaries with difficult scrawl simply because the author wasn’t trying to write in a way that would be widely legible to different audiences.