In many cities, archives house rich collections of letters, books, diaries, minutes and other valuable artefacts. However, these sources of knowledge and information are often underused as they are either fragile or the handwriting might be illegible to the untrained eye.
The Archivverbund Bautzen faced a similar challenge – nearly 300 books containing the minutes of the weekly city council meetings from 200-400 years ago, providing insights into the city’s past, were being under-utilised due to hard-to-read handwriting. For today’s article, we spoke with Grit Richter-Laugwitz, head of the Archivverbund Bautzen, about the task of transcribing Bautzen’s council minutes using Transkribus, the importance of these records, and how Transkribus has helped make them accessible to the public online.
Grit Richter-Laugwitz, Head of the Archive Association Bautzen. © Holger Hinz
Starting the project
With weekly entries into the 257 council minute books from 1623-1832, the city of Bautzen has documents that offer insights into (almost) everything that happened in the city during that time. Grit Richter-Laugwitz and the Archivverbund Bautzen (consisting of the Stadtarchiv and the Staatsfilialarchiv Bautzen,) realised that two centuries of the city’s history documented in these records were a rich source of knowledge. Against this background, a project was launched to transcribe and bring to light this collection of historical records.
Collaboration was at the core of this initiative, with Transkribus joining Archivverbund Bautzen as a project partner. The financial support for the project came from the ‘WissensWandel’ initiative, a digital programme of the Federal Government Commission for Culture and the Media (BKM). Richter-Laugwitz explains that the programme was designed to help libraries and archives improve access to their collections independently of on-site use and to apply novel (digital) formats of knowledge and information transfer. The aim of this particular project was to make the ‘Ratsprotokolle’ (council minutes), one of the most important archival holdings of the city of Bautzen, more accessible.
The Bautzen city council minutes
The council minutes of the city of Bautzen, dating from 1623 to 1832, form an important cornerstone of the city’s historical heritage. But why are these records so important when it comes to understanding and researching the city’s past?
These books document the weekly meetings of the council, which consisted of seven to twelve men from wealthy patrician families, details Richter-Laugwitz, among its members, the council elected a mayor each year. “The council minutes record both the annual council business and the issues discussed at the meetings, which cover the full range of municipal functions and developments.”
Richter-Laugwitz clarifies that although catalogued under the generic title of ‘Council Minutes’, their true content is only revealed by close examination of each entry. From information on sales or tax collection to political developments and issues, these historical documents captured the diversity of the city’s affairs and progress.
While these records were extensively restored and digitised between 2010 and 2018, with digital access available since 2019, navigating the sometimes poorly structured volumes remained labour-intensive. This has led to the under-utilisation of this resource, as “the collection was only used very sporadically by researchers – despite its significant relevance to a wide range of subjects”.
To make the council minutes more accessible to those with limited knowledge of historical writing, the Archivverbund Bautzen approached Transkribus. Using Transkribus’ AI-powered text recognition software, it would be possible to transcribe the handwritten records and make the transcriptions available and searchable online.
Transcribing 55.000 pages with Transkribus
With the Bautzen city council minutes having already been digitised by an external company in 2019-2021, Richter-Laugwitz tells us that she contacted Transkribus on the recommendation of Dirk Alvermann, head of the Greifswald University Archive. After detailed discussions and a successful application through the ‘WissensWandel’ funding programme, the historical documents were handed over to Transkribus for the text recognition and transcription process in March 2021.
As mentioned above, the material consisted of 257 books containing approximately 55,000 pages of German handwriting from 1623-1832. This immense corpus of text was then transcribed using the Transkribus Early Kurrent model, an AI text recognition model for German Kurrent handwriting. After the initial transcription process in 2021, it became clear that a better transcription result was needed, as well as further improvement of the metadata (e.g. display of signatures on the search page). To achieve this, a custom AI model was trained using Early Kurrent as the base model, which was then tested to see if it gave better results. As the transcription of the new model showed a definite improvement to the transcription, the entire collection of documents was revised in the summer of 2023.
Exploring Bautzen’s council minutes with Transkribus
The successful outcome is the now digitised and transcribed records of 200 years of the city’s history, uploaded to a Transkribus Sites (previously called Read&Search) website, which makes the documents from your Transkribus collection accessible online, so that they can be searched and accessed by anyone, anywhere. You can find the complete volumes of the Bautzen City Council Minutes on the Transkribus Sites website Bautzen Ratsprotokolle. The council minutes contain practically all the events considered noteworthy at the time that took place in the city, and now anyone can easily search all 257 books for any topic or term of interest. By simply entering search terms or names in the search engine of the website, the system will search all documents for corresponding entries.
Researchers will find Transkribus’ search function and the added metadata in the Bautzen Ratsprotokolle website particularly useful, as it allows not just the viewing of documents but quick and accurate access to specific topics or names. Particularly in the case of large collections of documents, having a searchable corpus means that historical research becomes more focused and efficient. Richter-Laugwitz explains that digitised and transcribed archival records are of great value for historical research, as is the connection of the Transkribus Sites website to other portals. As part of the project, Transkribus has created permalinks to Bautzen Ratsprotokolle, which can be found in the portals Archivportal-D and Findbuch. By linking Transkribus Sites to existing portals or databases, we aim to provide added value to archives and researchers alike.
A successful collaboration
While Transkribus proved to be a great choice for making historical documents accessible, Richter-Laugwitz explains that the lack of experience with the capabilities and limitations of the software was a challenge leading to many questions during the project. However, the collaboration with colleagues from Transkribus was very straightforward and constructive, so that questions or concerns could be resolved, leading to a satisfactory result, says Richter-Laugwitz.
The project even attracted a lot of media attention, including reports in the regional press about the use of AI to research Bautzen’s history, reported Richter-Laugwitz. The shared posts on Twitter (now called X) also attracted a lot of interest and were shared and positively commented on several times nationwide. Richter-Laugwitz and the team at Archivverbund Bautzen are also looking to explore further opportunities with Transkribus, particularly for the digitised chronicles of the city of Bautzen.
The successful cooperation between the Archivverbund Bautzen and Transkribus shows a shared commitment to preserving and sharing local history. We at Transkribus are delighted to have been part of this project to unlock Bautzen’s written past.
Many thanks to Grit Richter-Laugwitz for talking to us!
Richter-Laugwitz’s Transkribus Tip:
Start bravely, the possibilities are diverse and impressive.
Thumbnail Image: Grit Richter-Laugwitz, Head of the Archive Association Bautzen. © Holger Hinz