Be An Armchair Archivist And Help Make History Discoverable
COVID-19 has left many people stuck in their homes with some free time in their schedules. But life in quarantine does become repetitive and many are itching to get back to normal lives where they are able to contribute to society and make an impact. One great suggestion to look into is contributing to the processes of digitizing collections of archival objects and materials relevant to humanity’s history.
Many archives, library, and museum organizations are looking for volunteer transcribers to help review online materials and transcribe them so that they become easily searchable on the internet. It is pretty easy to set up shop as an armchair archivist and many organizations are looking for “volunpeers” to contribute to the process.
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Smithsonian Transcription Center
The Smithsonian Institution is a group of museums and research centers in the United States focused on “shaping the future by preserving our heritage” as well as dedicating resources towards advancing and sharing knowledge. It is a global organization that maintains diverse collections, specimens, and libraries. It is no surprise that the Smithsonian is eager about preserving historical artifacts and making them accessible through transcribing.
Signing up to work on these projects is quick and simple. Volunteers are able to create an account through the transcription center site or work anonymously if they choose. Multiple people can work on one project meaning volunteers are able to pick up where others have left off or start an untouched project. Once the document has been transcribed, it is sent for review and is either marked complete or returned for edits. Transcribers can see the impact of their work once documents are reviewed by referencing the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center, the Transcription Center, or doing an easy internet search.
There are plenty of projects across many museums and archives within the Smithsonian that need help. Volunteers are able to browse by museum collections or by themes. There is a variety of materials to work with from those in natural history like botany, paleobiology, or entomology to native history, endangered languages, and world cultures.
Currently the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is looking for digital volunteers to help work through collections of letters, newspapers, and pamphlets that are significant or of interest to African American history. Not only is this a way for the public to engage with the museum’s collections, these important projects will create open access to many resources that will inform the public of many aspects of African American stories that are deeply rooted in United States history.
“By the People” Library of Congress Project
The Library of Congress is also focused on digital preservation of literature throughout history whether they are ephemeral pieces or official documents. Just a few examples of recently finished projects the public has worked on include materials relating to women’s rights like the Susan B. Anthony or Elizabeth Cady Stanton papers, civil rights like the Rosa Park papers, and even materials relating to past presidents like Abraham Lincoln and George Washington.
The transcribing process is open to anyone willing to lend a hand and projects can be accessed through the Library of Congress By the People page. All available projects are towards the top while completed ones are towards the bottom of the page. Volunteers can click into each project to see what types of materials still need to be transcribed. There is an easy to understand progress bar located within each project’s page that explains how much has been completed, how much needs review, how much is in progress, and how much has not been started. It even includes a counter that tells you how many contributors there have been to the project. Many are in the thousands which just goes to show how important transcribing these documents is to people. The tool even goes a step further by showing the same statistics for each set of papers within a project.
Once you come across something that still needs help completing, it is as easy as clicking the “transcribe” button located at the bottom of the scanned image and typing. Throughout the process you are able to save what has been transcribed and, finally, submit for review what has been written. The Library of Congress makes this an intuitive process that is open to anyone interested in volunteering their time.
There’s still plenty of projects that need to be finished and more are added as collections are scanned. A couple currently in progress include the notebooks and letters of Alan Lomax, a folklorist interested in American and Carribean traditions, letters to President Theodore Roosevelt, Walt Whitman’s infamous writings, Spanish, Latin, and Catalan legal documents, as well as papers written during the women’s suffrage movement.
The Newberry Library-Chicago
Another library that gives the public opportunity to contribute to historical scholarship is the Newberry Library based in the city of Chicago. This library is hosting “Newberry Transcribe” which opens up access to letters, diaries, journals, and other material from the Newberry’s Modern Manuscripts Collections to the public. Their collections span the 19th and early 20th centuries and highlight the stories, history, and culture of those in Chicago and the Midwest. It touches on many aspects of history like American Indians and Midwest culture and expansion as well as printing, music, religion, genealogy, and maps.
The site provides guidelines and tips to help volunteers get started. Accounts are suggested so that you can easily keep track of your progress as well as materials you have contributed to but not required. The software has features to help volunteers zoom in and pan through scanned images quickly and users can easily browse through work histories on each document.
Volunteers are able to filter what they want to work on by decade, language or category. There are many topics with materials relating to traveler’s writings, western expansion, and the Civil War, just to name a few.
Preserving The Voices of History
There is much we can learn from revisiting the stories of the past. History has been documented for nearly 5,000 years. There are millions of stories that can be shared with the world. Preserving the various stories of individuals has always held an important role in society, just look at the countless amounts of libraries, museums, and research centers available.
As we continue to step into a world of new technologies and advancements, our generation is lucky to have the resources to put towards ensuring that history is not only preserved but accessible. Transcribing projects are a great way to accomplish this. Just look at the Library of Congress’ partnership with the National Digital Newspaper Program (NDNP). The newspapers housed at the Library of Congress are the first draft of history. This partnership is a long-term effort dedicated to developing an internet-based, searchable database of U.S. newspapers. This digital resource will be available to be used by anyone for years to come whether they are professors at research institutions or curious, everyday members of society. If you’re looking to get your hands on a productive COVID task, make sure to check out these cool projects and make your contribution to preserving and spreading knowledge.