When academic workers abandoned their usual activities in March 2020 as a response to the COVID-19 threat, many wondered how to continue their research efforts in the new virtual-only environment. In restricting access to some research materials, pandemic conditions tasked scholars to think creatively about the rich resources on offer in the digital format, and to find ways to gather in non-traditional spaces. A series of two transcription competitions, called La Sfera Challenge and La Sfera Challenge II, answered this call by bringing together nearly 70 medievalists over the course of Summer 2020 to collaboratively transcribe eight copies of Goro Dati’s fifteenth-century geographic textbook, La Sfera. The Challenge’s two iterations took place between three teams from May 22-June 5, 2020, and five teams from July 17-31. A second series of events, the Image du Monde Challenge, took place from September 2020 until January 2021.
Responses to the four combined Challenges were overwhelmingly positive, with participants calling for additional opportunities to collaborate with teammates and to explore, in more detail, the materials they came to know so well during each two-week period. The success of these first events and the interest they generated in the wider scholarly community encouraged project organizers Benjamin Albritton and Laura Morreale to establish the Transcription Challenge Framework (TCF), a set of concepts and tools to facilitate ongoing transcription Challenges and support the research outcomes and scholarly communities created during these events. The TCF provides guidelines for Challenge organizers, houses the data created during the transcription events, and encourages publication of new research on any aspect of the texts transcribed during a TCF-sponsored Challenge. The TCF is a scholar-run, community-based initiative, supported by Stanford Libraries and FromThePage.
What is a Transcription Challenge?
A transcription Challenge is a digital event in which teams of transcriber-scholars compete to collaboratively transcribe multiple copies of one text, transferring information from digitized manuscript images to machine-readable versions of that same material. Once the competitive phase of the Challenge is complete, each team’s submission is judged by a panel of experts based on how accurately, quickly, and collaboratively the transcription was made. Awards in the competition are nominal, but serve as a means to evaluate submissions and highlight successful or innovative methodologies and discoveries made as a Challenge unfolds.
Who is Involved? Roles and Procedures
Each Challenge is led by a Challenge Coordinator, supported by two Editor-Captains per team. The Challenge Coordinator chooses the appropriate text, decides on the number of copies to be transcribed, recruits team captains and judges, serves as the central point of information as the Challenge takes place, gathers individual team submissions for delivery to the judges panel, and promotes the Challenge within the larger scholarly community before, during, and after the Challenge’s active phase. Coordinators also archive Challenge materials once the event is complete.
Each team is composed of no more than 10 members, to include 8 transcriber-reviewers led by 2 Editor-Captains, who may also act as transcribers. At least one of the two editor-captains should also be designated team lead.
There are no qualifications to join, but team members (Transcriber-Reviewers) must sign up at least one day prior to the start of the competition and be approved as a member by the team leader to participate. A panel of three Judges examines and adjudicates all submissions based on transcription accuracy, speed, and collaboration.
How does it work? How to Organize a Challenge
Each transcription team unites around one of the digitized manuscripts designated by the Challenge Coordinator, and has 2 weeks to produce the following:
- A key-boarded transcription of the manuscript they have been assigned,
- A transcription statement that sets out the rules of their edition,
- A project log that tracks team progress,
- A webpage with at least 4 updates on team activity during the Challenge.
Each digitized manuscript page is transcribed by one team member, reviewed by a second, and approved by one of the two editors before it is considered complete. Dated transcription logs are included with each transcription submission.
The competition takes place over the course of 2 weeks, from 12:00 PM GMT on the first day until 12:00 PM GMT on the last. Teams that complete their transcriptions before the stated deadline may submit their contributions when deemed complete. The decision of the judges is final.
Why should I participate?
Although the award for the winning team is nominal, the rewards of participation are many, as past Challenge participants attest. The Challenges provide:
- hands-on experience in digital scholarly collaboration, within a restricted time-frame,
- familiarity with digitized manuscripts and tools to access and study them,
- access to a built-in, interdisciplinary scholarly community with a unifying text or work at its center,
- an opportunity to contribute meaningfully to the peer-reviewed scholarship of a textual or illustration tradition,
- exposure to the raw materials of humanities research, in cooperation with experts in various fields,
- possibilities for further research and publication.
Many of these outcomes are visible by reading through individual team pages or scrolling through Twitter threads and blog posts from previous Challenges. See, for example, the hashtags #LaSferaChallenge and #LaSferaChallenge2 for evidence of Challenge takeaways.
Rationale: What does a Transcription Challenge achieve?
(Or, Creating the Un-Edition)
The TCF provides a sustainable working model for the scholarly community as it moves towards more collaborative and digitally-oriented research methods. Aside from the benefits it offers to individual transcribers, the data produced during each transcription event take up the foundational assumptions of textual editing as it is currently understood.
For nearly two centuries, scholarly editors have worked to collect, collate, and curate the multiple versions of individual medieval texts that often exist in widely-dispersed manuscript copies, and to produce a critical edition, what is understood to be a text in its most pure and distilled form. In contrast, the products that emerge from transcription Challenges unmake the prioritization of the single archetype, highlight the close attention of transcribers to the idiosyncrasies of each print or manuscript attestation (including the edition), and foreground the ground-breaking discoveries scholars often make as they engage in the transcription process.
The immediate products of a transcription Challenge — that is, full access to multiple key-boarded transcriptions of examples from one textual tradition– achieve the opposite of what the printed standardizing edition does. What is created, rather, is an Un-Edition, a mapping-out of the chaotic variations so characteristic of medieval textual production, and a rendering of difference in machine-readable and -manipulatable format, ready for future analysis. These events promote a new way to see medieval texts and contexts and an appreciation for each copy as a cultural artefact, existing on its own terms.