With newly digitized slave ship logs, Berkeley Ph.D. student examines race, power — and literacy

June 13, 2024

William Carter was in a National Archives reading room in the United Kingdom staring at a box of tattered pages covered in cursive writing, sea water stains and smears of blood. It smelled musty, and his hands became smudged turning the soot-covered pages. 

Carter, a UC Berkeley Ph.D. candidate in geography, was mining these centuries-old slave ship logs in 2020 as part of his research into the transatlantic slave trade and what lessons from then might apply to our own understandings about race, literacy and power today. 

But there was a problem: He couldn’t read a single sentence.

For even the most skilled readers, the faded, swooping lettering would be nearly indecipherable. But it was especially inaccessible for Carter, who has dyslexia and whose screen reader tools for written notes and published books didn’t work on 400-year-old slave ship logs.

So in collaboration with UC Berkeley’s Disabled Students’ Program (DSP), Carter created a first-of-its-kind research solution to allow him to read these centuries-old materials. Carter finds logbooks and takes digital photos of the pages, which he then shares with DSP’s accessibility experts. That team works with a company to digitize the files in a layout mirroring the original documents, almost as if a deckhand in 1691 pulled out a typewriter or opened a Google Sheet.

The result is a file that Carter’s screen reader can interpret. For the first time in their history, these handwritten stories are available for Carter — and one day, he hopes, others — to listen to, analyze and write about. 

Read more at Berkeley News