We asked our hardworking e-tern Nichole some questions about her experience transcribing store accounts. Here’s what she said!
I am currently a senior Public History major at Stevenson University (SU), graduating in May 2013. The program requires an internship relating to the field of Public History, focusing more on the museum and archival aspects of history. This requirement is a great opportunity to see what is beyond the world of books and classroom learning.
- What interested you in the Glassford & Henderson Transcription Project? How did you hear about it? Why did you want to be involved?
In the fall of 2011, I began my search for an internship and I had no idea what I wanted to do. A SU adjunct professor, who was also conducting archaeological excavations at the site of the town of Colchester, VA, mentioned a possible internship to my department chair about the same time I started looking for internship opportunities. When I heard about the project, I was immediately excited. Every semester, I heard SU’s Public History students give a presentation about their internships. What was suggested to me by the department chair promised to be a very different experience from those I had heard previously.
- What has been the hardest part about transcribing?
Although eighteenth-century handwriting is beautiful to look at, it is very difficult to read when you are used to seeing modern fonts on a computer screen. When I explained my internship to others, particularly non-history majors, I explained that it was more like translating a foreign language than transcribing. The letters are complex and very different from what is seen in today’s world. The abbreviations and spellings of words were not standardized like today. There were many cases where I would stare at one word for an extended period of time and still not understand it. In some cases, I would move on, and then a few days later, I would come across it again in another document and have a sudden moment of enlightenment—with the strong urge to shout “eureka.” After a few months, I learned to read the writing and it became much easier to decipher, but I still remember those early challenges and realize how much I’ve learned.
- What has been the most interesting thing you have learned?
My initial work on the project gave me many ideas of what I could research on my own, just for personal reasons and for fun. As part of my internship, I contributed to the Mount Vernon Midden Blog writing on the subject of tobacco marks. The topic is not anything ground breaking, just something small, yet is a small contribution to the study of colonial Virginia’s economy. The concept of tobacco marks is entangled with both trade in a monetary sense and the political system of the colonies at the time. History is an interesting subject in that one small event or idea can be interwoven into a web of other fascinating subjects, large and small.
After I began working with the project, I was recruited to help in my university’s archives. I encountered handwriting that I was able to read thanks to the experience of working with the ledgers. It has been great fun being able to translate one of the many skills I received from working with the Glassford and Henderson Project directly to another project.
- Do you have a favorite account? Whose was it? Why did you like it?
My favorite accounts are the ones that spur questions. Throughout this project, I was given suggestions to read into a variety of subject materials and apply those findings to better comprehend what I was transcribing, to put what I was seeing into a historical context. I was fascinated to learn that colonial stores operated as more than just a place to buy and sell goods. Various services and community records can be seen throughout the entries—everything from taxes to hangings. The general store, like those owned by Glassford and Henderson, can be argued to be the center of colonial community life.
Some of the accounts that stick out in my mind are the ones that tell a story, though the relations of the products bought are speculative, such as accounts where the account holder bought materials required for building: nails, wood, and tools. After seeing these items, I wondered if the account holder was a carpenter by trade or was building something for himself—the answer could be anything. Some of the most interesting accounts aren’t for people at all, but for property like Lots 31 and 32 in Alexandria. You can know exactly about the time improvements took place on the lots in 1767-1768 by the payments made to different people for their work and it demonstrates how various building supplies were purchased for tasks, sometimes even specifying the location they were used. If these structures are still around (or can be located archaeologically, this page could provide research material for looking into the historical architecture of the period especially the description of the cellar.
- Would you recommend the project to other college students? Why?
Working on this project has been a great opportunity. It is an outlet through which one can express her individual interests. Whether one enjoys material culture, colonial accounting, trade relations, or colonial policy, this project can offer something for many interests. When I am talking to my fellow students at school, I sometimes find myself bragging about who I am working for in my internship as opposed to them. This task does require a great deal of concentration and patience, but the outcome is well worth the hair-pulling experience.
- What do you hope to do in the future?
Like many history majors, I am constantly asked, “What can you do with a history degree?” The answer to this question usually begins with a laugh. At first glance, there is little that someone studying history can do outside of teaching. But! There are areas little thought about. Personally, I have fallen in love with the archival world. Both the sort of grunt work that is involved working with the transcriptions as well as the work I have done outside of Mount Vernon has started to shape what I enjoy doing: working with “old stuff”. Unlike many people, I prefer being behind-the-scenes. There are so many possibilities that can come out of being around objects and materials associated with history. I am currently beginning the application process for graduate school and am very anxious about what is to come after I graduate.