I'm a volunteer transcriber with CLIP (Crew List Index Project). I helped to index crew lists last summer and this winter I've been helping with a transcription from the 1900 Mercantile Navy List (MNL). MNL lists information about British registered ships and presents the data in alphabetical order by vessel name. It's divided into two parts - steam ships and sailing ships.
The page layout for the steam ship section looks something like this:
Sample page of the 1900 Mercantile Navy List, page 372.
And here is a zoomed view of the upper-left corner:
Similarly, here is a sample page view from the sailing ship portion:
Sample page of the 1900 Mercantile Navy List, page 533.
And here is a zoomed view of the upper-left portion of the page, showing two schooners (Sr):
In order to transcribe data from the pages, we log into the CLIP system and enter in the vessel's Official Number. The software generates an output showing the expected vessel name, port of registry, and year of registry (if a steamship). We check this information and correct it if necessary. For sailing ships, we also input the rig type - a piece of data which hasn't been indexed before and thus doesn't appear in the automatic data entry prompt. After the data has been saved, it is run through a quality control check and then added to the database. Vessels' names and registration information changed over time for quite a few ships, so this information will help to provide researchers with as much data as possible to identify and research specific ships.
Now, we're not transcribing the entire text of the book, but only the data listed above. This information will help researchers to track down crew lists where they have only the name of the ship, but not the official number. "...most of the large repositories which hold crew lists use official numbers, rather than names, as a reference" and so this is why it's so important for us to index the names and official numbers of ships from records such as MNL. (Finding Seafarers on Crew Lists)
For those of you who have never researched British merchant navy records before, here's an example of how I might go about it:
Back in the spring of 2009, I was researching the work history of Mr. Fleet. I knew that Mr. Fleet had sailed on the Titanic. So, the first step was to go to the crew list for Titanic to see what vessel he had previously served on. Scrolling down to row 27, I find Mr. Fleet and see that his previous vessel was the Oceanic. My next step is to find the crew lists for the Oceanic...but to find her crew lists at the archives, I need her official number. This is where I go over to CLIP's Search Vessels by name page and look for Oceanic. I run the search and get a few different ships with the name Oceanic, but this is the one that I'm looking for: OCEANIC - 110596 - Liverpool 1899 - Steam. Now that I have the official number, 110596, I can search the different archives in the UK and Canada to find crew lists from Oceanic for the period 1899-1912. CLIP also provides some help at its Search Vessels by Official Number page. After I figured out which archives held the crew lists and what the record reference numbers were, I found myself a bit stuck. For the most part, Oceanic's crew lists are held in Kew, England at The National Archives (TNA), but they are not digitized. I have no way of knowing which crew lists I want to see! I know that Mr. Fleet's previous vessel was Oceanic, but that doesn't necessarily mean that he sailed on Oceanic during her voyage immediately prior to Titanic's launch. He may have been sick that month or been working ashore. The only choice I had was to take a guess at which crew lists I wanted to see, and then pay a professional researcher to make copies for me. It was after I received the copies in the mail that I knew whether I had picked the right crew lists. (The alternative would be to travel to Kew, but that was a bit out of my budget.)
The good news here is that CLIP transcribing projects are going to save folks like myself a lot of time and heartache in the course of tracking down work histories of individual seafarers. The crew list transcribing that I did last summer was used to help create an index of data that is searchable by the seafarer's name. Rather than blindly guessing at which crew lists I want to see, I can search the indexes for Frederick Fleet and see a list of the crew lists in which that name appears. (There may be more than one Frederick Fleet, but at least I will have some starting point from which to work.) CLIP hasn't transcribed every British crew list that exists, but we are working on transcribing more and more. Want to look around the crew list indexes? They're are searchable at Find my Past - Crew Lists.
From that brief research story, I think you can see that maritime research, like all research, is a labor of love :)
Ok, now here is something fun...
In the above zoomed view from the steamship section, can you see the vessel named Walter Thomas? I had the privilege of transcribing some of her crew lists last fall!
Sample Walter Thomas crew list cover page from The National Archives, BT 99, 1709.
Sample Walter Thomas crew list page from The National Archives, BT 99, 1709.
Wikipedia has an entry about the company to which the Walter Thomas belonged, and I am guessing that the "notable captain" named "Capt. J. James of Aberporth" is the one you can see here. I've ordered a book about the company so I can learn more about them.
Here is a zoomed view, so you can see some of their signatures. These are quite legible compared to some of the names found later in the list! :)
Sample search for "John James" at Find my Past
If MNL or crew list transcribing looks fun, please do get in touch with the folks at CLIP. They are really friendly and always happy to find new prospective transcribers. I didn't know anything about transcription when I started, but I've learned quite a lot and am having a great time!