Signs of Literacy initiative

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The Signs of Literacy initiative is a collaborative public history initiative started by Mark Hailwood and Colin Greenstreet in the Spring of 2018. It seeks to develop a community of individuals interested in exploring and sharing work on early modern literacy, 1500 to 1800. 


The initiative is going back to basics and asking who in the C16th, C17th and C18th could read and write. They are particularly interested in reading and writing skills as evidenced in manuscripts and in how the acquisition of literacy relates to the development of other skills such as measuring, basic accounting, and navigation.


The project has developed an annotated data set of deponents from the English High Court of Admiralty to use as a resource for the study of marine and shore-based literacy. The data set contains 15,500 deponents from 1570 through to 1684, and codes for name, occupation, age, and residence, together with signature literacy, as evidenced by marks, initials and signatures used at the foot of the depositions. The unique features of this data set are its size and the degree of specificity it can achieve for sub-occupations such as master’s mate, boatswain and foremastman.


This data set is a resource for both quantitative and qualitative work on literacy, including the development of machine learning techniques to identify marks, initials and signatures in digital images of manuscripts.


For more information on this data set, see the SoL GitHub.

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