Reflections on Transcribing the Georgian Papers

By Tom Murray, King’s Undergraduate Research Fellow, King’s College London

I was introduced to transcription as part of the Georgian Papers Programme (GPP), and as such my transcribing experience is decidedly Georgian. Having transcribed a number of documents for the GPP, however, the value of transcription for historians has become manifest. Admittedly, there remains nothing quite like engaging first-hand with primary sources – which for the vast majority of history, and certainly for the Georgian period, means written or printed documents. Having said this, however, there is definite value, both practical and otherwise, in transcription and transcribed sources. The process itself is relatively simple, though collectively represents a heroic effort on the part of the GPP with the eventual aim of digitising the Royal Archives’ extensive collections from the reigns of the Hanoverian monarchs. My transcription contributions were a number of essays written by George III, including ‘Some short notes concerning the Education of a Prince’ – intended for his son, the future George IV – and ‘Lectures on Modern History’, musing on the benefits that come of studying history; something I can certainly get behind.

Essay on the German Empire’s governance by George III (RA GEO/ADD/32/481). Royal Archives/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

Never having known a world in which the Internet was not integrated into every aspect of modern life, I initially found the practice of reading handwritten documents bemusing. This was reflected in some preliminary difficulty in reading handwriting itself – once I became familiar with George’s style of writing, however, this became less of a problem. More disconcerting was his habit of making complex additions to and deletions from his essays, often in erratic handwriting reminiscent of exam answers I’ve written myself. Thankfully, it was clear that the GPP had foreseen this – I had been provided with an extensive transcription manual with guidelines for how best to transcribe the many quirks thrown up within Georgian writings, from aforementioned deletions and additions to marginalia and doodles. These guidelines were especially useful, providing an invaluable manual for transcribers as well as ensuring that GPP transcriptions and all their complexities are recorded in a uniform way, much to the relief of future researchers.

A secondary challenge I encountered in transcription was another product of my own twenty-first century, digital upbringing. Much to my initial dismay, George III lacked the benefit of spell-check when writing his essays, and thus his spelling, grammar and punctuation were often not as I – or anyone else writing in 2017 – might anticipate. Given that the very first instruction within the GPP transcription manual reads “Type What You See: Transcribe the document exactly as written”, I was therefore required to hold my syntactic nose and accept that when George wrote about the “pedantick applications of Colleges and Schools” or apologised for “how odly soever it may sound”, this was exactly what he meant. This took some adjustment: even in transcribing those quotes onto this blog post my own instinct – and spell-check function – attempted to alter George’s original spelling. However, once these initial challenges had been overcome, the transcription process proved rewarding and enjoyable – as well as surprisingly accessible. As a recent graduate, I was pleased to discover that, aided by the GPP manual, I was able to contribute to the programme’s transcription efforts with just my laptop, Microsoft Word, and a few hours of work. The ease and relative brevity with which the transcription project can be added to – depending, naturally, on the length and complexity of the documents themselves – surely bodes well for the project as a whole, as well as the prospect of encouraging individual contributions to the GPP like mine.

There is clearly real value in transcribing the Royal Archives’ Georgian documents that makes any challenges to the transcriber worthwhile. Following the success of a similar project to transcribe and digitise the papers of Queen Victoria, the process of transcribing the Georgian papers with a view to their digitisation seems a natural step. This would of course provide some relief to future historians, who will be able to benefit from digital access to the Royal Archive collection via the internet, not unlike my own use of the venerable Founders Online digital archive in researching for my undergraduate dissertation. Likewise, the capacity to search within a digital database, as opposed to trawling through original documents, will aid researchers in their specific pursuits. Democratising access to the Georgian papers in this way will allow historians across the world to employ them in their research, facilitating new and exciting contributions to the field of eighteenth-century and Georgian studies without requiring a visit to the Royal Archives at Windsor, as impressive an experience as I know that to be. This, surely, is the long-term objective of the Georgian Papers Programme, of which transcription forms a crucial, fruitful cornerstone.