Digital Collections: Optimizing Access and Discovery in an Evolving Technological Landscape

Presented by: Quartex, McGill University, and Library Journal
Event Date: Thursday, September 16 2021


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When the team at McGill University Library started working in Quartex on the build of its flagship Canadian Fur Trade Collection, Handwritten Text Recognition (HTR) offered capacity for effective full text search of manuscript documents, but the concept of one-click automated manuscript transcription remained an enticing prospect.

James McGill, original benefactor and namesake of McGill University, was a Scottish merchant who made a large part of his fortune from the commercial fur trade, specifically the North West Company, one of the two major fur trading enterprises operating in 18th and early 19th century Canada. McGill University Library’s fur trade collections include documents relating to the North West Company and the wider colonial-era fur trade, and predominantly contains manuscript material in both French and English. Documents in the collection were primarily authored by the North West Company’s senior management, nearly all of whom came to North America from Britain and were also active in land speculation and other mercantile activities, while also acting as seigneurs and lawmakers within the legislative assembly of Lower Canada. Although they are the authors of the documents, Indigenous peoples and Indigenous knowledge were essential to the fur trade during this period and their presence can be found within the collection, albeit through a European gaze.

Until now, time-consuming and resource-heavy manual transcription was the only option for making this collection properly accessible through full-text search, whereas HTR enables full text searchability, opening up new routes towards understanding the commercial fur trade, one of the major mechanisms through which capitalism was implemented in the landmass that would become known as Canada.

As such, the team at McGill was central to pre-launch testing ahead of the highly anticipated release in Quartex of HTR Transcription in the spring of 2021, providing several challenging manuscripts to fully road-test the functionality.

Since the launch of HTR Transcription – the ability to generate one-click transcriptions across all manuscript content, with no training required for different hands or languages – the technology has been applied to more assets from this important collection, enabling the McGill team to fully evaluate its long-term role in unlocking the search potential of these archival materials.

In this webinar, Jacquelyn D’Eall Sundberg, Outreach & Special Projects, and Carolyn Pecoskie, Metadata & Electronic Resources Librarian, will talk us through the build of the Fur Trade Collection, testing the capabilities of HTR Transcription in terms of accuracy across documents of different type, script, language and quality, and, looking to the future, how they foresee the technology being incorporated into transcription workflows for all manuscript materials.

Much has been said about the research and operational potential of HTR Transcription – join this webinar to gain a deeper insight into its real-world use and application, and evaluate the role which it can play in the development and enhancement of your own digitized manuscript collections.



Jacquelyn D’Eall Sundberg, Outreach and Special Projects, ROAAr McGill University Library

Carolyn Pecoskie, Metadata & Electronic Resources Librarian, McGill University Library


Martin Drewe, Head of Customer Experience, Quartex


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