Wanted: Volunteers who like history ... and can read cursive

'Citizen archivists' across the United States are transcribing historical documents to help make them more accessible to the public online. Though some amateurs struggle with reading 19th-century handwriting, organizations are still clamoring for their aid.  

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
A war re-enactor hangs out by his tent in the Union camp during the Battle of Gettysburg reenactment on the 150th anniversary year of the event, on July 5, 2013, in Gettysburg, Penn. Documents from the Civil War are among those that volunteers today are being asked to transcribe to make them available online.

One of the hazards of transcribing historical documents is that you never know when you might suddenly find yourself in the middle of a battle. 

“I was typing these notes about what seemed like a routine day [on an aircraft carrier],” says Colleen Crook, a retired teacher. “But then the Japanese attacked … and there was a strafing incident and people died and it was very dramatic.” 

Ms. Crook, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, is a volunteer with the US National Archives. Programs like the one she’s part of can be found at libraries, archives, and other institutions across the United States, as groups push to digitize documents so they can be available to the public online. The keyboard work of these “citizen archivists” helps organizations complete projects that otherwise would not have been possible – and in return brings people closer to history. 

“Having a group of people work on it for you and create something that is useful and good for scholars is immeasurable,” says Mario Einaudi, Kemble Digital Projects Librarian at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. 

To prepare volunteers for the work, organizations host trainings and workshops, even “transcription parties.” Those who want to get right to it can visit websites like that of the National Archives or the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center for digital volunteers. Online training prepares volunteers (there are already 10,748 of them on the Smithsonian site) to work on projects such as transcribing the field notes of an Irish naturalist who liked bees, or the receipts of an ivory trader. 

The purpose, the site explains to would-be typists, is to “make our collections more accessible and useful to curators, researchers, and anyone with a curious spirit. Because computers have a hard time understanding handwriting, many of our collections still hold many secrets and hidden knowledge inside their pages. With your help, we can bring that knowledge to life.”

Projects throughout the country are benefitting from that spirit. Thanks to more than 5,000 volunteers, it only took a year and a half to transcribe telegrams and ledgers for the Decoding the Civil War project – launched in 2016 – that Mr. Einaudi is in charge of at the Huntington Library. “In terms of time and staff labor, we could have transcribed everything, but I estimate that it would have taken us four to five years,” he says. 

This was the first time the library had crowdsourced a major project. “That was totally new territory for us,” he says. 

Elsewhere, volunteers like Amber Oldenburg say that the activity transports her to not only a time but a place she might otherwise never experience. “I guess I like getting into records that I maybe would not have exposure to,” she says. “When I’m looking at a Mexican baptismal record, I don’t usually see those on a daily basis.”

Ms. Oldenburg – who is studying family history research at Brigham Young University-Idaho and also conducts historical research for clients – has done most of her volunteer work through The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. One historical record she transcribed that stuck with her was a list of slaves in Louisiana. “You see the master’s name, and then all you see – it was just so heartbreaking. You just see these, just, checkmarks. ‘Ten-year-old mulatto boy’ – you know, no names, nothing,” Oldenburg says.

The current popularity of looking into a family’s past can sometimes motivate her to do one more record, hoping that it will help someone trying to connect the twigs on a family tree. “I think it really does give me more incentive to say, rather than searching Facebook right now, I can be indexing this,” Oldenburg says. “I could be using my time more wisely.”

But can amateurs really do what those trained professionally can? Patricia Delara, an assistant archivist at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco and a processing archivist for the Archdiocese of San Francisco, says that transcribing is just a small part of the job. Her duties also include processing collections and helping patrons and researchers, among various other tasks. 

“I’m all for getting the public in and working together for the archives and … bring[ing records] out there, making it accessible...,” she says. “But I think there should be a different way to [refer to] these volunteers, because in a way, having a different name other than ‘citizen archivist’ would also help put more into detail what the archives profession actually is.”

One area that the public, including younger helpers, struggles with is being less familiar with cursive writing. “It’s one of the most amazing things that I have seen as a librarian and as an archivist, is the fact that we have a younger generation that cannot read handwriting,” says Einaudi, whose project offers a primer on historic cursive.  

Despite that difficulty, staff at the Huntington Library are already anticipating tapping volunteers again. “As a result of this, a number of our curators here are extremely excited about the possibility of continuing this and doing new projects with crowdsourcing of material,” Einaudi explains.

When Crook, the volunteer from Ohio, thinks about those whom her work could help, she envisions her transcriptions aiding people who are attempting to find out more about their family tree.

“In terms of other research, I don’t know,” Crook says. “I hope it’s of value. But if not, it’s still interesting to me.”

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