Banker, Can You Spare a Dime?

Given all the headlines about the struggling economy over the last couple years, it feels remarkably timely to be transcribing documents from the early months of the Great Depression as part of the Greenfield Digital Project.

Recently, I’ve been working on letters from depositors of Bankers Trust Company, which became one of the first large banks to fail in Philadelphia when it closed on December 22, 1930.

Though the bank’s leaders claimed that it would reorganize shortly, their optimism was misplaced. The bank never reopened for business.

I can only imagine how devastating that closure was for the 100,000+ depositors of the bank, who lost all access to their accounts the day Bankers Trust failed to open. (FDIC protections did not exist until 1933.)

Philadelphians faced about 30 bank closures during the Great Depression. Here, depositors waited to try to withdraw their money from Erie National Bank at 6th and Erie Ave. in 1931. (Philadelphia Record Photo Morgue collection, collection V7)

For some of those customers, Albert M. Greenfield became a lightning rod for both their anger and despair. Greenfield was a prominent personality in Philadelphia and a highly visible member of the bank’s board of directors.

This anonymous group threatened to kill Greenfield if he did not immediately pay Bankers Trust depositors.

According to one scholar, Greenfield hired a police officer to protect himself and his family for a time.

But he also received letters from Bankers Trust customers pleading for his help to get their money back. Those letters are heart-breaking not only because of the hardships they describe, but also because we know that the correspondents likely did not receive the relief they sought (at least not from the bank itself).

This nurse wrote to Greenfield and his wife asking for help getting her $2,000 before Christmas. She'd had five operations and had been saving the money for a rainy day.

This correspondent offered a brief business proposition to Greenfield: buy out a frozen savings account for a potential $200 profit.


This writer did some name-dropping while appealing to Greenfield's religious side. (He was a member of the church of Greenfield's friend, Cardinal Dougherty.)

Greenfield’s secretary dutifully responded to each letter, explaining that the situation was out of Greenfield’s hands and that he had no control over who could receive payments from the closed bank.

In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Banking oversaw a lengthy legal process that returned to depositors about 59 cents on each dollar on deposit there. Depositors received their sixth and final payment from the liquidation process in May 1946 – more than 15 years after the bank closed.

You can read more about HSP’s Greenfield Digital Project, part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation, in these past blog posts.

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Getting from paper pages to digital texts

Now that we’re elbow-deep in encoding the 300 or so documents for the Greenfield Digital Project, my colleague Faith Charlton and I are spending a lot of time at the keyboard.

As I’ve explained in past posts, we are digitizing, transcribing, and annotating primary source documents to tell the story of Bankers Trust Company, a large Philadelphia bank that failed in December 1930. This project is part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation.

We’ve selected our documents and passed them to HSP’s digital imaging team, and we are now focused on creating our XML text-encoded files.

Step one is getting the text from paper to a digital file.

One obvious method is simply to retype the text on a computer. That works great for brief documents and is essentially the only option for handwritten documents, where each author’s writing must be carefully deciphered. But we have another tool in our toolbox for longer typescript and print documents: optical character recognition, or OCR.

Software programs like ABBYY FineReader or OmniPage can perform sophisticated transformations of digital images into editable text files. For a variety of reasons, I decided it didn’t make sense to invest in that type of software for our project.

Instead, when we encounter longer typescript or printed documents in our project, we are using a free tool: Google Documents, or Google docs for short. You can upload .jpg, .gif, .png, or .pdf files to a private storage area, and the system will do its best to translate that digital image file into an editable text file. You can then copy and paste the text into any other software you’d like, including the software we’re using for text encoding, oXygen XML Editor.

The crucial check-box in the Google docs uploading process is near the bottom: "Convert text from PDF or image files to Google Docs documents."

Depending on your perspective, the Google results are either amazingly accurate or frustratingly imperfect. (I fall into the “amazingly accurate” camp.)

For example, the following four-page letter has about 1300 words total. I could type it from scratch in about 15-20 minutes; Google docs can do the same work in less than a minute.

The first page of the digitized letter, in which Bankers Trust Co. President Samuel Barker proposed a new business venture, Bankers Securities Corp.

Here is how Google docs transcribed the first page of the letter:

June 11, 1927
Mr. Albert Pi. Greenfield, Bankers Trust Building, Philadelphia.
Dear A 0
Let me give you more concretely than I did in brief conversation a few days ago my thoughts cmcerning a Bankers Securities Corporation and the much that can be accomplished through such an organization. I s11:’;ll try to put the proposition, as I vision it, with the strong conviction that the time has come to act in the matter.
When I first proposed it, immediately upon organization of Bankers Trust Company you and others thought the time premature. You were right. Since then the way has cleared and been opened in many and important ways for Bankers Securities Corporation to be brought into life. There is ready for it a largely advance prepared and very profitable field, with real things at hand for it to do-—things of creative as well as money-making character. What I see is this:
1. Bankers Trust Company is now safely and surely established. Already it holds recognized position in Philadelphia. Important financial interests elsewhere, as in New York, Boston, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, are glad to do business with it. From now forward there is pretty sure promise of earnings which will give increasing net income for the stock. There are about 500 stockholders. Without support the stock is much above both issue price and book value. The premium is one measure of the belief which exists that the Company has a large future.
2. Resources of Bankers Trust Company have more than doubled; its deposits have increased 60% in five months. Directly, some 12,000 people are banking with it. Already, with a securities department only in swaddling clothes, Bankers Trust Company has been welcomed to the table with grown-ups and taken into the inner circle by big financial groups. I fill in this picture as follows:
a. It enjoys full syndicate position with Kuhn,
Loeb and Company, so getting securities which that banking house issues at bottom issue price.

If you compare the original and the transcription carefully, you’ll see that Google skipped the printed letterhead at the top of the page and had problems with the recipient address, salutation, and first paragraph. But overall, it made relatively few mistakes.

Of course, both my typing and the Google docs transformation require careful proofreading. Google often skips over text that confuses it, and it seems to do worse if there are multiple styles of text on a page (like the letterhead and typescript above). It also has a hard time distinguishing between typescript 3s and 5s, among other issues. But for our purposes, these shortcomings are a fair tradeoff for the price.

Sharing Ideas

April was a month of learning, sharing, and inspiration for me, thanks to several conferences and workshops.

First, I attended the annual meeting of the National Council on Public History (NCPH), held in Pensacola, Florida this year.

I bumped shoulders with several hundred other public historians from around the country and learned about how others are tackling various challenging issues, from shaping new historical narratives to engaging new audiences to measuring student learning. You can read attendees’ commentaries about these and other topics on the NCPH conference blog.

While in Pensacola, I also attended a one-day THATCamp (The Humanities And Technology Camp) at the start of the NCPH conference. Billed as an “unconference,” THATCamp is a collaborative information-sharing, training, and problem-solving event for people working in the digital humanities (like me!).

Among the topics on the agenda: mobile apps and mobile technologies, how people are crafting digital oral history projects, and the differences (if any) between “digital history” and “digital public history.” Notes from these and other conversations are available on the THATCamp NCPH blog.

Finally, I was on the road again last week — this time to Providence, Rhode Island for a text-encoding seminar.

Led by the talented folks at the Women Writers Project at Brown University, the workshop focused on how to include contextual information in text encoding projects like our Greenfield digital project. My colleagues Tammy Gaskell, Faith Charlton, and I also had a chance to get feedback on the technical side of our project. Next up: putting that advice into practice in our project’s custom encoding schema.

Untangling text encoding

Over the last few months, I’ve been spending a lot of my time focused on a fairly technical topic: text encoding.

Basically, text encoding is a method for representing text in a digital form. It allows you to record information about text — for example, whether it is handwritten, or mentions someone’s name, or is the salutation of a letter — right alongside the text itself.

And it’s a key component of our new Greenfield digital history project, part of a larger effort funded by the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation.

As I’ve described in previous blog posts, we are digitizing, transcribing, and annotating approximately 300 primary source documents from the Albert M. Greenfield papers (collection 1959) and other collections to tell the story of Bankers Trust Company, a large Philadelphia bank that failed in December 1930.

We will be coding each document in XML following the encoding guidelines set out by the international Text Encoding Initiative (TEI). We will present these documents, contextual essays, and teacher resources online in the fall of 2012.

So what does text encoding look like?

To give one small example, if I were transcribing a letter from 1928 in which the author wrote “Meet me on June 13!”, my encoded transcription would look like this:

<p>Meet me on <date when=”1928-06-13″>June 13</date>!</p>

The added coding allows a computer to recognize that the string of characters “June 13” represents a specific date, and it would allow a computer to recognize the same date whether it was written as “June thirteenth” or “6/13/28” or even “today.”

We will be encoding much more information than just dates in our Bankers Trust documents, from the physical appearance of the text to its structure to its intellectual content. Once we have completed coding, web users will be able to tackle sophisticated searching and analysis of the digital documents. I’ll keep you posted on our progress.