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Bartlebys unleashed: 'Citizen scriveners' answer maritime society's call

New London — In its weekly email blast last Sunday, the New London Maritime Society put out a call for help transcribing the 19th century whaler's journal the society's Custom House Maritime Museum acquired last year.

Within a day, 31 people had responded, “citizen scriveners” eager to start deciphering the writing of the anonymous crewman — or crewmen — who chronicled voyages of the bark Merrimac, which sailed from New London on July 17, 1844. At least four more had signed up by the end of the week, Susan Tamulevich, the museum’s executive director, reported Saturday.

It seems she hit on the perfect pandemic diversion.

“I didn’t expect so many,” said Tamulevich, who brainstormed ways to advance the project while recovering from foot surgery. “The society’s email blast goes out to more than 4,000 people every week and we know more than 1,000 people open it. That’s why I put so much effort into it. Plus, we’re on Facebook.”

Some of the respondents already have signed up for second and third pages. Nearly a third of the journal’s 155 pages have been assigned.

“They’re coming back fast,” Tamulevich said.

Among those poring over the journal’s finely scrawled cursive are Patty Oat, a researcher whose ancestor was a whaler out of New London; Bill Adler, a Floridian who grew up across the street from Mystic Seaport; John Mock, a Nashville-based musician who grew up in New London and whose father was a Coast Guardsman; Craig Showalter, an Ohioan whose late mother, Lucille Showalter, founded the society; and Sandi Brewster-walker, a society trustee, historian and author who once held a communications post in the Clinton administration. More than a few, Tamulevich noted, have been lawyers or schoolteachers, professions that know some things about transcription and deciphering handwriting.

“I jumped on board immediately,” Adler wrote in an email. "In my younger years, the Seaport was like a playground to me. I learned to sail there and became passingly familiar with the whaling industry. ... Despite living in Florida, I ... remain very interested in all things nautical ...”

Tita Williams, a transcriber who taught third grade in New London schools for “many, many years,” recalled having her students take on the roles of a whaling crew while teaching New London history.

“'Gale winds building,’ ‘Thar she blows’ and the like would garner some wonderful creative writing,” she emailed.

Jo Ann Morris, a retired Fitch High School math teacher with a master’s degree in library science, wrote that studying the journal has made her reflect on the ways the world has changed since the Merrimac sailed.

“First, you are swept away by the physical beauty of the writing,” Morris wrote. “It is very similar to calligraphy and is executed in ink and quill. How very different and difficult from computer entry or texting. ... This written word does seem so much more permanent than our digital ones.”

Laurie Deredita, the society’s librarian, is building an online display of the journal and the transcription, posting pages as they become available. Tamulevich said the goal is to have the effort completed by the end of February, when Brewster-walker is scheduled to deliver a Zoom presentation titled “Seamen of Color: Living and Sailing from the Port of New London, 1640-1880.” The presentation is scheduled for 2 p.m. Feb. 28, the last day of Black History Month.

Deredita said she was "really pleased with the energy and enthusiasm" of the citizen scriveners as well the "the quality of their work."


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