But as we read through the document, taking turns reading each line, I discovered this was no ordinary cholera camp newsletter. Sure, the doctor wrote about sickness and death at the camp. But he also wrote this:
There are 25 children here who give [me] no end of trouble; the eldest a girl is 12 1/12 years, she is not prepossessing, has square shoulders & nasty splay feet & sore eyes; the all the children have sore eyes, the youngest is [an infant] aged 3/12 years, it’s a slobbering little beast with a big head.
In between burial reports, Dr. Coleman informs us that the funeral priest “looks like a blaggard” and complains of the camp’s men, who “lie in their beds all day” and “[drink] beer all day.” He apparently hated a man named Dr. Lindsay, who “at dinner puts his fork into his eye & nose before finding his mouth.” We were laughing the entire session. This brash attitude towards death was not something I had expected from a venerable, 150-year-old document from Penn’s special collections from the Kislak Center. But manuscripts are great reminders that people are and have always been unpredictable and wonderfully strange.
In transcription, the art of reading the written word, every detail matters. At Manuscript Collective meetings, we have argued over whether a tiny mark is a period or a comma, whether the squiggle at the end of a word is really an extra “e,” and whether a slight change in handwriting indicates italics. The goal is to represent the original manuscript with as much exactness as possible. And since the dissemination of materials is easier than ever, transcriptions have taken an increasingly prominent position in scholarship. The Collective’s goal is not only to teach students about manuscripts, but to produce transcriptions that can be shared with others.
During our transcription of the cholera camp papers, the difficult script—Coleman would make doctors everywhere proud—often gave us pause. Thankfully, we had material-texts professor Peter Stallybrass and English grad student Alex Devine to help us. When a word was indecipherable to us, one of them could almost always figure it out. Along the way, they taught us some tricks of the trade: use context and repetition; a word that is unreadable in one place may show up later in a friendlier form; and the more pairs of eyes, the better. I like to think of transcription as an insanely fun logic puzzle, one that rewards practice, patience, and cooperation. Often a line that is impossible to one person can be read in an instant by another. That is why group transcriptions, like those organized by the Collective, are so valuable.