Tate and Zooniverse’s online crowdsourcing transcription tool AnnoTate launched on 1 September, and since then has welcomed over 10,500 unique visitors to the site. By getting involved, each visitor will play a crucial role in the process of transcribing 17,000 letters, diaries, notes and sketchbooks from the archives of artists (find out more information about the project). From jotted ‘to-do’s’ and reminders, to a moving description of the outbreak of war, AnnoTate transcribers are working through a wealth of material from the mundane to the magical; from professional gripes to professions of love, social commentary to shopping lists, and so much more.

So what has inspired transcribers to get involved?

A negative space black pen ink sketch of a man and woman swing dancing with text

Donald Rodney
Sketch of male and female dancing titled ‘IN REMEMBERANCE OF THE 20th CENTURY’ 1986–7
Ink and graphite on paper
© Estate of Donald Rodney and © reserved
View this item in Art & artists 

To find out, let’s hear from two participants who have shared their thoughts on the project, and described their experiences with AnnoTate.


‘… I was curious to see what it was about.’

AnnoTate user @starrymirth explains that on the one hand ‘the AnnoTate concept is something that I consider quite important – the digitization of data, making it searchable and accessible; but on the other hand I transcribe simply because I find the process enjoyable.’ She further explains:

I think one of the reasons I’ve enjoyed AnnoTate is that there’s a lot of flexibility – I can just transcribe a line or two if I don’t have a lot of time. There’s also an immense sense of satisfaction when you’re staring at a line and you suddenly see what the illegible word is and the sentence makes sense. It’s a sort of instant-gratification that makes contributing to AnnoTate quite addictive.

Sharing discoveries

Many users have posted interesting finds to the AnnoTate Talk forum. Talk is both a social hub and a noticeboard where shared articles can be browsed, questioned, and commented on. The materials featured in Talk speak of the entire gambit of human experience, from comedy to tragedy, poetry to bureaucracy. Fascinating posts there include a discussion of a typescript of a 1986 talk by Klaus Hinrichsen at the Camden Arts Centre, and this sketch by Donald Rodney. Frequently too, transcribers uncover personal notes on health, career and family, such as this love note penned by Paul Nash.

@starrymirth describes her experience of transcribing romantic letters: 

… some gush about how much they miss their sweetheart, while others remain matter of fact, discussing when and where the train will be arriving. In a way, each letter paints an intimate portrait of the person and their relationship.

Learning as you transcribe

If someone spent time writing, drawing and recording things I think it is a shame if all that information remains hidden…

AnnoTate visitors can begin a transcription in two ways: they can chose to ‘Start transcribing’ and jump straight in to work with randomised items (links back to the Tate website are provided per article, so the transcriber can learn more about the artist, their work and the piece’s context); or they can ‘Find Artists’ and focus on the archive or a particular individual. User @jules is currently transcribing Keith Vaughan’s notebooks which she describes as both poignant and revealing:

He sketched and painted some wonderful images from WWII. I’ve come to realise that he suffered from poor physical and mental health and eventually took his own life. I have also learnt something about the process of creating a piece of art as he sometimes included notes on the colours he wanted to use in his sketches.

The transcription process is illuminating in many respects, with participants learning about aspects of and approaches to practice, gaining insights into societal histories, and encountering striking biographical details. As @jules notes:

Sometimes it feels like prying but it’s all part of the bigger picture of understanding who the person was and why they produced the art they did… It’s important to save these notebooks and sketches. They are part of our heritage and social history – and you never know what you might find.

Thanks to @starrymirth (Laura) and @jules (Julia) for contributing to this post, and to all getting involved with AnnoTate for your vital contributions to this exciting project!