The Library of Congress needs YOUR help to transcribe over 28,000 thousand letters sent to President Abraham Lincoln by the end of TONIGHT. Why not take a moment today to help them reach their goal?
On October 28th, 2018, Mental Floss put out a call: the Library of Congress needed help transcribing thousands of letters to Abraham Lincoln, all of which had been scanned into a massive online database that was now open to the public. Since then, over 28,000 pages in the Letters to Lincoln campaign have been transcribed by online volunteers, with the goal of getting the entire collection processed IN FULL by December 31st, 2018. If you’d like to help now, go to the Library of Congress’ Crowd site, hit the “Let’s Go!” button, and you’ll be sent immediately to a document that needs transcribing.
The first time I tried it, I got a letter about soldier recruitment in Albany that was addressed to William H. Seward, the U.S. Secretary of State during the Civil War. The second time, I got an 1881 Christmas entry in Clara Barton’s diary. The third time, I got a letter from some presidential admirer who sent Lincoln a tub of butter to help him “regain his strength”—definitely the oddest in the bunch! All of them, however, were super fun to transcribe. 😀 Not only was it fun trying to decipher a bunch of crazily beautiful old-school cursive handwriting, but it was great to know that I was doing something that directly contributed to our larger understanding of history in a way that will benefit future generations—and you can do it, too!
Need some convincing first? Then read on! 🙂
WHO CARES ABOUT THAT TUB OF BUTTER, ANYWAY?
OR, WHY YOU SHOULD TRANSCRIBE HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS:
There are tons of reasons why squinting at crazy handwritten cursive is worth a bit of your time and effort. Here are a few of mine:
It brings the past to life: Personal documents like letters and diaries can be a powerful way to bring historical events to life, creating a feeling of connection to a distant past by making it more immediate and human. This can be a powerful teaching tool. Your history students might not care about, say, the Battle of Gettysburg—but they might care more if they had to spend a week transcribing a soldier’s letters home.
It makes more information accessible to computers—as well as future historians: Technology changes constantly, but right now computers are still awful at figuring out cursive handwriting, much less when it varies widely from person to person—but they can understand and catalog typed text, and historians of the future will certainly rely on such records. Transcribing these collections also helps to preserve them in another way, as data degrades a much slower rate than paper—and once that information is online, not only will it potentially live on forever, but people will be able to access it worldwide, increasing accessibility as well.
It helps institutions and universities with low manpower to better understand their collections: Thousands of historic documents that could take years or decades for a small group of professional staff to transcribe can be sorted within months or days once the public gets involved. And once that work is done, institutions can focus on the next big step—interpreting that data and fitting it into a larger historical context.
It will help you internalize period voice: For those of you who write historical fiction, what better way to internalize period-specific word choice, turns of phrase, and vocabulary than by transcribing actual historic documents from the time period you’re writing about?
It contributes directly to the preservation and understanding of history: If you have an interest in history, then why not jump at the chance to help do something directly to help preserve, understand, and add to our collective knowledge of the past—especially if it will only take a few minutes of your time?
So are you sold on this transcription thing yet, dear readers? No? Well, then, read on! 🙂
IS THAT AN “F” OR AN “S”? THE JOY OF READING OLD HANDWRITING:
If you don’t find any of the earlier reasons compelling, then why not this one: old handwriting is beautiful in and of itself—and there’s even an entire field of study dedicated to it. Paleography is the study of ancient and historical handwriting, and as an art and a skill it is fascinating in its own right. It can also be quite challenging at times, but that’s also part of the fun, as you try to puzzle out what a particular word or letter might be.
For example, just because an old document is written in English doesn’t mean a native English speaker can instantly read and understand it. Not only did people’s handwriting vary from person to person—for example, one man’s “the” might look exactly like his “it’s,” I problem I ran into with the last letter I transcribed—but language changes over time. Being aware of abbreviations, notations, turns of phrase, and context can help a lot, particularly when you are having trouble identifying a word. While each of the projects I’ll be listing later has their own specific guidelines, here are a few general tips to keep in mind for any of them:
For most of human history, spelling wasn’t standardized, so something could be spelled phonetically in one document and not in another, and both would be considered “correct” for the time period. Even if you know something is spelled wrong, however, it’s important to mark it down exactly as written, using [sic] to indicate it wasn’t a mistake. These variations in spelling help linguists understand how words evolve and change over time.
Slow, careful reading, especially at the beginning of a new document, is necessary to try and decipher another person’s handwriting. Familiar words can be rendered quite strange when written in a different hand. Read carefully and slowly as you go at first and you’ll get faster as time goes on, especially if you’re working with documents written by the same person as you become used to the quirks of their handwriting.
Start with identifying individual letters, then go on to words. Since each individual writes differently, you need to be able to understand how they write particular letters before you can attempt to pick out words. Going through and comparing letters is essential. Someone whose writing of f, s, and j all look the same can lead to a lot of potential transcription mistakes if you haven’t taken the time to do this.
Context is important. Sometimes, there will be words you simply can’t read. Being able to read the rest of the sentence, however, can at least help you make a guess. If you do make a guess, it must be marked as such (each project will have a different way to do this), but there’s no shame in marking something as illegible to you, either—documents are reviewed by multiple people, so something you can’t read might be understandable to someone else.
Don’t stress about getting every single word—and don’t guess when you’re not sure. Sometimes, no matter what you do, you will end up with words you can’t decipher, and that’s okay. In that case, it’s better to mark a word as “[???]” than trying to put in your best guess. All the projects I will be linking you to are all peer reviewed, so someone will be double-checking your work later, and they might be able to figure out that word you missed. And even if they can’t, it’s better to err on the side of caution rather than make a potentially costly mistake.
If you want more tips on paleography, there are tons of great resources online. The National Archives of England has an online course for transcribing English historical documents, complete with practice pieces. This excellent 2014 transcription guide from the Natural History Museum has a ton of great information as well. Lone Star College has a nice guide to paleography too, particularly as it pertains to U.S. history—and there’s even a mini-game where you have to decipher old handwriting to save a woman from drowning. My poor woman drowned almost immediately, sadly. Hopefully you’ll have better luck than me! 😉
SO YOU WANNA TAKE THE PLUNGE:
WHERE TO START TRANSCRIBING
So, are you ready to try transcribing your first historical document? Yes? That’s wonderful, because there are TONS of people all over the internet that could really use your help! Here’s a list of sites to get you started:
~ American History ~
For anyone interested in contributing to the preservation of American history, there are tons of great options besides the Library of Congress. Try one of these:
Become a Citizen Archivist for the National Archives and Records Administration: Unfortunately, you MUST register to begin helping, but once you do, you have a choice between a variety of different “Missions.” While there are too many to list here in full, some of the more interesting ones are soldier’s World War II diaries, litigation records from the landmark Radium Girls court case, and court documents related to the slave revolt on La Amistad.
Become a Digital Volunteer for the Smithsonian: If you think that variety is the spice of life, then this is the transcription job for you! The Smithsonian has more detailed instructions for their volunteers than others on this list, but they make up for it with a truly breathtaking array of projects. There are currently 19 active projects when I last counted, with new ones added regularly. That’s way too many for me to list here in full, but some interesting ones are a large amount of papers from early Native American ethnologist Alice Cunningham Fletcher, a Japanese solider’s WWII diary, and a lavishly illustrated French Artillery catalog from 1757—and that’s just within the Smithsonian archives! You can also search for more projects via one of their many partner institutions as well. With projects organized around themes like “Woman’s History,” “Arts & Design,” “Civil War Era,” “Biodiversity,” and more, you’ll be sure to find something you’d like to try! 🙂
Preserve Colonial History With the State of Virginia: Virginia’s State Library has recently opened its digital archives to public transcribers. Interesting topics include collections of Colonial era papers about the founding of the state of Virginia and African American slave narratives.
Help the U.S. War Department Sift Through Old War Records: The U.S. War Department has over 45,000 documents that need transcribing! Unfortunately, their transcription services will be down through 2019 due to a site redesign, but once it’s back up and running, they could really use the help. You can get a sneak peak at the new transcription layout here.
Transcribe Handwritten Recipes with The University of Iowa: The University offers lots of projects, including Civil War diaries and over 300 handwritten cookbooks from the Chef Louis Szathmary Culinary Collection.
Make Grandma Proud By Transcribing Old Census Records: If genealogy is more your thing, then you can contribute to the field directly by helping to transcribe over 4.2 million microfilms of historical documents from 110 different countries by working with FamilySearch.org, a free genealogy database that’s run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Later-Day Saints. They’ve already processed over 1 billion documents since 2008, but they could always use more!
Help Stanford University Archives Document the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake: You might be surprised to know that Stanford University was also hit by the 1906 earthquake that destroyed a significant part of San Francisco and the Bay Area—and they have an entire historical collection to prove it. You can help transcribe it here, as well as metric tons of alumni papers, letters from WWI and WWII, and other material on student life.
Taste History With the New York Public Library: One particularly unique project is the New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” collection, which features historic menus that need transcribing. You can even help them locate the sites of old restaurants on Google maps.
The Library of Congress is More Than Just Lincoln’s Letters: If you still want to help the Library of Congress but don’t care about Lincoln, there are other options as well. You could transcribe scouting reports from baseball legend Branch Rickey, personal diaries from nursing pioneer Clara Barton, “the Angel of the Battlefield,” penmanship contests for disabled Civil War veterans, and personal papers from Mary Church Terrell, one of the early founders of the NAACP.
~ International History ~
If you speak another language and are interested in topics beyond American history, you might want to try lending a hand to institutions in other countries, many of which have documents in other languages that need translating as well as transcribing. In this list, you will find European, English, and Australian projects on a wide variety of topics:
Examine British War Diaries: Operation War Diary is a wonderful place to start transcribing if you’re interested in the British side of World War I. Featuring documents from England’s National Archives, many of the unit diaries catalog troop movements and offer insights into preparing for battle and army life. There are also more technical documents like signals pads, reports, troop movements, and unit orders to transcribe. And if you don’t feel like trying to decipher whole pages, you can also “tag” pages for named soldiers, which helps with site indexing and future research.
Use European Languages to Puzzle Out WWI Documents: Do you know Italian, French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Greek, Polish, or Romanian? Then Europeana wants YOU! Since 2016, Transcribathon: Europeana Transcribe 1914-1918 has been transcribing over 200,000 personal documents pertaining to WWI that come from all over Europe. Interestingly, Europeana hosts transcription events as well, the most recent one being held in Brussels as part of the WWI Centenary. Instead of focused collections, Europeana features live “runs” on particular topics, where they host online events in an attempt to completely transcribe a collection within a certain amount of time. One particularly fun one featured WWI love letters. ❤
Contribute to Climate Change Science by Transcribing Arctic Weather Reports From the 1800s: Do you like weather? Then why not take a few minutes to transcribe naval weather observations from the 19th century over at Old Weather? Far from being a pointless exercise, transcribing this data adds to scientist’s climate change knowledge by cataloging what the average temperature in the Arctic USED to be like—which helps us figure out how much things have changed since then, and how they might change in the future.
Help Add Words to the Oxford English Dictionary—And Learn About Shakespeare: Believe it or not, there are still thousands of handwritten documents related to Shakespeare that have yet to be transcribed. Why not help the Folger Shakespeare Library, Oxford University, and the Oxford English Dictionary get a handle on their collection over at Shakespeare’s World. Not only will you get to learn about daily life in Elizabethan England, but you’ll also get to add NEW words to the Oxford English Dictionary! Many words and word variant spellings have been found in these letters which exist nowhere else—so not only will you be adding to our collective understanding of William Shakespeare, but to the English language as well!
Carve Out Your Own Space on the Jeremy Bentham Transcription Leaderboard: The University College of London is still looking for help in transcribing over 60,000 digitized manuscript folios of philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who is considered to be the father of utilitarianism. Once you make an account at the Transcription Desk, you can start right away. There’s an entire transcribing community for this project as well, with a project blog, themed challenges, and a leaderboard if you’re feeling competitive 😉.
Sick of Europe? Try Canada!: If you’re sick of Europe and America, the Royal BC Museum in Canada could also use your help. Projects include WWI letters, diaries, and scrapbooks. The Nova Scotia Archives could use some help too.
~ You! ~
Lastly, do YOU need help deciphering old handwritten items, like your grandfather’s war diaries or family letters? Then why not start your OWN crowdsourcing transcription project? FromThePage is a piece of FREE open-source transcription software that’s been used by universities like Stanford to transcribe and preserve historic documents with the help of the public. Just download the program, scan in your documents, tell the internet about it, and watch the help roll on in! 🙂
Well there you have it, folks—-welcome to the glorious world of transcribing historical documents. I hope this list encourages you to give transcription a try, and maybe save a tiny piece of history for next year. And on that note…