Dialect and Heritage Project Archivist, Caroline Bolton shares some of the digitisation challenges encountered during this Heritage Lottery funded project.

After a massive effort from colleagues in Special Collection’s in-house digitisation studio, the original response books for all 313 locations from the renowned Survey of English Dialect (SED) are now available online.

Part of the Leeds Archive of Vernacular Culture (LAVC), each book is made up of a binding of loose survey sheets of notes from a particular SED location. They capture the local dialect through the words and grammar of hundreds of informants in response to the survey’s 1000+ questions. With so many questions, it was only practicable for the survey to be spread across 2-4 informants for most locations. Averaging nearly 100 pages per book, these are arranged into 9 smaller ‘books’ according to topics that include farming, animals, nature, the home, human body, weather and social activities.

Extract from Pilling Response Book LAVC/SED/2/2/5/6
Taken from Pilling Response Book LAVC/SED/2/2/5/6. Image credit Leeds University Library

The scale of the digitisation task alone from the outset was challenging. Having to do this during a pandemic and a studio move has made this an even more remarkable achievement. But by adapting to hybrid working with onsite capture and offsite processing with cropping and file naming, the books are now accessible to global audiences beyond Leeds.

For the first time since the creation of the response books in the 1950s linguistic researchers across the world can easily access the raw data that was interpreted to produce results that have featured in many publications such as the Basic Materials and Linguistic Atlas of England. Researchers can also access the original survey and the stories behind it.

Whilst most of the responses are captured in a linguistic shorthand known as IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), non-linguist researchers will still find plenty to enjoy and explore.  For each location the fieldworkers often recorded notes about the places, the informants and their histories. Sometimes they would make drawings or capture detail (referred to as ‘incidental’ information) about the subjects informants mentioned.  Summaries of these incidental materials were later made for each county during a subsequent research project in the early 2000s. These provide a wonderful insight into local life, traditions of the time and will be made available as part of the project.

Extract of Askrigg, Yorkshire Response Book. LAVC/SED/2/2/6/7
Taken from Askrigg, Yorkshire Response Book. LAVC/SED/2/2/6/7. Image credit Leeds University Library

In addition, the Response Books have benefitted from the project’s ongoing catalogue enhancements, with each book being geo-referenced and indexed by informant. This means that for the first time it is possible to search by place or informant and find any other associated photographs or audio recordings in which they feature such as this example for Willie Pitt.

Whilst over half of these 2000 photographs are now available online, access to the remainder as well as to the LAVC audio, is still work in progress due to requirements for copyright clearance. This has proved a mammoth task that is often the hidden work behind any digitisation project. It has been made easier with the support of the British Library who have digitised the gramophone discs from the original SED recordings and nearly 900 reels from the later Institute of Dialect and Folklife Studies in a parallel project to the Dialect and Heritage project. With plans for full recordings to be made available in 2022, researchers can still access the existing extracts available via the British Library Sounds website.

Where recordings and photographs exist, we will now be able to piece together the words, voices, faces of the SED Informants and bring to life their role in the survey.