Transcribe and Discover First World War Diaries and Letters

Written by Stephanie Warner; copy edited by Michael Ferreira

Are you curious about others’ lives?

Can you read old handwriting?

Do you have good attention to detail?

Do you want to make history more accessible?

If you answered “yes,” then the Royal BC Museum’s Transcribe project is for you!

Transcribe is a crowdsourced initiative that uses open-source technology and code to digitize historic documents in the museum’s collection. Volunteers access the digitized document they wish, begin transcribing, and save their edits. Other volunteers proofread the transcribed work. The project requires curiosity, patience, and attention to detail—in short, the skills of an editor!

Crowdsourcing and digital accessibility are current trends for libraries and museums. Recently, the British Library launched the Convert-a-Card project to transfer information on printed card catalogues into digital records. When volunteers transcribe paper documents into digital format, they help create searchable databases. LibCrowds, the platform for Convert-a-Card, says, “By participating in the projects here, you will have a direct impact on enabling future research at the library.”

Back in British Columbia, the Royal BC Museum’s first community transcription project is First World War diaries and letters written by British Columbians. I’ve been transcribing the letters of Erroll Pilkington Gillespie, a young lieutenant from Victoria. Erroll was keen to get to the front and “do his bit,” but he seemed to be stuck in a series of officers’ training courses in Seaford, East Sussex. Right now, I’m at May 1918, and Erroll is learning how to shoot machine guns.

I first chose Erroll’s letters because few of them had been started. I was soon engaged by Erroll’s chatty writing style. He’s a very communicative and expressive fellow. His letters home generally run eight to nine pages. Erroll admits that he likes to write, and ends one letter to his mother with, “Better take pity on the Censor and end this…but I do have a lot to say and am really ‘wound up!’” He ends a nine-page letter to his father with, “Well Pa I must stop as I’m using up all the writing paper in the Hotel!”

Erroll’s personality really shines through in the letters. On leave in London, Errol wrote that he “dined and wined” before going to the theatre. The influence of wine is clearly apparent in the letters. They are in larger handwriting than usual and are peppered with exclamation marks and “h—” and “be d—nd!” (Yes, with the dashes—so he wouldn’t offend the censor—or his mother?) Letters written 10 days later, from camp, reflect Erroll’s more sober mood. However, he still wanted to “grouse” about the “grub” in camp (one pat of butter and no jam) and about the dust that got “anywhere and everywhere.”

The letters are full of references to Tin Lizzies and phrases like “It was absolutely ripping” and “had an A1 time.” Editors, writers, and linguists will enjoy seeing the colloquial language of 100 years ago.

I’m a historian by training, so this is an ideal project for me. I’m having fun following Erroll’s opinions and exploits, but I’m also gaining a greater understanding of the young British Columbians who fought in the “war to end all wars.” Moreover, I’m using my editing skills to do my bit to make history more accessible.

Stephanie Warner wrote her undergraduate thesis at Mount Allison University on the social history of British emigrants to British Columbia. She also did an MA in public history at the University of Waterloo. She has written about her grandfather’s First World War experiences at and She blogs and tweets about history at @sawhistory.

Michael Ferreira received his Editing certificate from SFU in 2012 and is a freelance assistive writer, copy editor, and proofreader through WordFerreira Productions. He previously volunteered for the “West Coast Editor Bugle” and helped prepare and launch “West Coast Editor.” He has studied creative writing and English for years and is taking publishing courses online through SFU. He returned to Vancouver in February after running a fundraising office in Prince George.

Image by Bigstock

4 thoughts on “Transcribe and Discover First World War Diaries and Letters

  1. Iva Cheung says:

    Great article! I love Transcribe’s interface, and the project’s certainly given me a new perspective on BC history. I’m also a fan of this whole model of microvolunteering. I can feel as though I’m making a meaningful contribution, even if it’s just for ten minutes a day.

    I’ve compiled a list of other crowdsourced transcription projects: Some of them have a natural history focus, which may interest people with a science bent.


  2. John Eerkes-Medrano says:

    Thank you Stephanie and Michael.

    Very touching to see the tributes to John. The editors are a great community.


    Laura Eerkes-Medrano


  3. Hi Iva, thanks for sharing the link of crowdsourced transcription projections. I’m really excited about these opportunity to share my skills on these kinds of projects. I’d do it for fun anyways, but when I know it gives future researchers access to information, all the better.


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