The Merrimac Journal Transcription Project

When the Journal arrived at the Custom House in August 2020, it was examined by Susan Tamulevich, Executive Director, and Laurie Deredita, librarian, who noted its fragile condition. Despite the temptation to start reading it, they decided that it would be prudent to handle the manuscript as little as possible. After an article appeared in the Day of New London, it became clear that there was a lot of local interest in this New London-based whaling journal and that it would be useful to have a transcription of the pages publicly available.To this end, Susan took photographs of each of the pages so that a transcriber could work from the images rather than the pages themselves.  Eventually, it was decided to “crowdsource” the task of transcribing to volunteer “scriveners.” With the Custom House closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed like the perfect project for people interested in maritime history but stuck at home. All of the sending, receiving and editing of documents would take place electronically. 

Susan’s call for volunteers received local and national media attention and she was nearly overwhelmed with responses from people all over the country and abroad who wanted to try their hand at transcribing. In early January 2021 she began to send out the page assignments and instructions to the volunteers.  Within days, Laurie started receiving the completed transcriptions from the volunteers and she began to post the texts, side-by-side with the corresponding photographed pages from the manuscript, on an online website called Voyage of the Whaler Merrimac, created on the Omeka platform. By February 2021 the transcription part of the project was complete but the editing process took another two months until we decided  that it was good enough. The editing and research skills of volunteer Barbara Nagy were especially appreciated in completing this part of the project.

To transcribe a document from the 1800s is harder than it seems even with a key and examples at hand. The transcription of a manuscript requires the word for word recording of what appears on the page and respecting the punctuation or lack thereof. Not only does the transcriber have to contend with antique handwriting styles but also with the odd spelling and punctuation from a time when American English was just becoming standardized. Our Journal is filled with references to the names of ships and the geographical locations that the whalers visited.  Some of these names are almost unrecognizable although the spelling may tell us something about the way the words were pronounced.  Also, the vocabulary of whaling has an archaic feel to it. How many people today would know that to “gally” a whale is to frighten it,  that a “gam” is a gathering of whales or of whalers at sea or that a “pipe” is a large type of barrel? 

Craig Showalter was one of the volunteer scriveners and he soon very kindly volunteered to create an “easy readable version” in which he renders the language of the manuscript into standard modern American English with recognizable punctuation and grammar.  He also was skilled at figuring out some of the most obscure spellings and words. This version makes the Journal  easier to read  but Craig has still managed to conserve the flavor of the original.

It quickly became apparent that it would be very useful to provide some historical information about whaling as background for the Journal.  Fortunately, among our transcription volunteers was Steve Purdy, formerly the chief interpreter on Mystic Seaport’s  Charles W. Morgan, the last of the great whaling ships, and a historian of the economic history of the whaling industry.  Steve kindly agreed to share his knowledge and expertise in the interview/article that appears on this site.

We are also heavily indebted to the databases on the WhalingHistory.org website, a collaboration between Mystic Seaport Museum and the New Bedford Whaling Museum, for providing many of the hypertext links to information about the ships and the people mentioned in the Journal.

In the future we may add more information about the Journal of the Merrimac to this exhibition.

---Laurie M. Deredita, librarian and editor






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The Merrimac Journal Transcription Project