From the Papers: How we do our work
October is American Archives Month, which highlights the importance of historic documents and records, and the work of archivists across the United States. In recognition, we wanted to share some of the process involved with creating the growing digital archive that constitutes the Mary Baker Eddy Papers.
If you’ve been exploring our Papers website at mbepapers.org, or reading this monthly “From the Papers” article series, you’re aware that we provide free, online access to Mary Baker Eddy’s outgoing and incoming correspondence, as well other documents by Mary Baker Eddy in our collections, such as sermon drafts, notes, and poems. You may wonder why you can’t find certain documents or people on our website, or why our articles seem to focus on the earlier parts of Eddy’s life.
The answer has a lot to do with best practices. As the creation of digital archives becomes more popular, there is a temptation to take as many items as possible and put them online quickly. Nevertheless, an understanding of context is so important when working with primary source documents, and a digital archive requires that extra care be taken in order to ensure that this context is provided. We want to be confident that website visitors know we offer a trustworthy, accurate resource. Each step of our publishing process contributes to this goal. The steps include transcription, verification, annotation, encoding, and publication.
Transcription and verification
So, where do we begin? Let’s consider an 1886 letter from M. Bettie Bell to Mary Baker Eddy.
Can you read the text in the above image? Perhaps you can decipher all of it. Maybe you can at least pick out the words Christian Science. Or maybe you can’t read any of it. The first step of our process is to transcribe a handwritten original document (unusual punctuation and spelling mistakes included!), in order to create an accurate copy. We can then share the document in a format that is easy to read and word-searchable.
This is a key step to providing the necessary context mentioned above. During annotation, a staff member identifies details in the document that help provide a better understanding of it, such as people, places, events, and literary references. We include these descriptions in the final published version as pop-ups (see the images below). In this letter from Bell, you’ll find annotations that give supplemental and contextual information, such as Bible references and the relative costs of mentioned goods and services in today’s dollars:
We also provide short biographies of those who wrote to Eddy and those who received correspondence from her, as well as of other individuals referenced in the letters (see the image below). Preparing these biographies has taught us about some less-familiar early Christian Scientists—M. Bettie Bell included—who corresponded regularly with Eddy and made a significant impact. Bell came from a large family, and several of her siblings also took an interest in Christian Science.
Our process benefits from the fact that (for the most part) we’re working through Eddy’s correspondence chronologically, from the earliest to the most recent.1 Something that is unclear in one letter often becomes more understandable in subsequent letters. A topic identified in one letter may also become a theme, as we see it referenced across many letters.
At this step in the process, the document is transformed from a Microsoft Word document with footnotes into an XML2 document, which is publishable on a website. The process of encoding includes putting various features of an online document into a coded form that allows our website to be functional for the visitor—for example, to display an annotation as a pop-up or to show spelling mistakes in both their original and corrected forms. We can also use the encoded data to create lists or other types of displays. This image shows some of the encoding behind the pop-ups shown in the section above:
Another valuable aspect of creating XML documents is that they provide a stable digital file that can easily be converted into other formats as digital technology changes. We follow international standards in our encoding process, in order to ensure consistency.
After a document has been encoded, we check to ensure that everything is displaying correctly. Then it is published on our Mary Baker Eddy Papers website.
It takes time for us to follow this careful and detailed process in publishing annotated documents. That is why everything from the Mary Baker Eddy Collection isn’t available yet. But the result is an accurate resource that provides the needed context to facilitate a solid understanding of these important documents.
What else would you like to know about the Mary Baker Eddy Papers? Let us know and we might cover your topic in a future “From the Papers” article.
- We have published some documents out of chronological order, in support of other organizational projects or goals, and you will see a few of these on the Mary Baker Eddy Papers website. While these have been annotated to the best of our ability, we expect that once we come to them again chronologically, we’ll have more information to add. The good news is that with digital publication, this is very easy to do!
- Extensible Markup Language