September 10, 2014

The Smithsonian asks for volunteers to help transcribe their massive archives


One of the Smithsonian's documents being transcribed is the 1865 diary of Arctic explorer William H. Dall.  Image via

One of the Smithsonian’s documents being transcribed is the 1865 diary of Arctic explorer William H. Dall.
Image via

Because, as they write, “Ink fades with time, and individual scrawls sometimes resemble hieroglyphics,” the Smithsonian is undertaking an effort to digitize their archives. With the help of volunteers working online at their new Transcription Center, the museum is aiming to speed up a process that could have taken decades.

Though many specimen and documents have been digitized, handwriting can be tricky. The goal is to crowdsource the transcription of material that a computer just can’t decipher. By opening the transcription process up to the public, they hope to make those images not only accessible, but searchable and indexable to researchers and anyone else who’s interested across the globe. “These volumes open a window on the past and allow those who lived in the past to speak directly to us today,” says Pamela Henson, a historian in the Smithsonian’s Institutional History Division.

Volunteers have already completed 141 projects. These include Mary Smith‘s Commonplace Book Concerning Science and Mathematics, a hand-written collection of “personal writings and summaries of articles concerning everything form science and math to medicine and religion,” which dates from around 1769-1780.  There are also Civil War-era diaries that give a first hand account of finding out President Lincoln had been shot:

We were awakened this morning by an announcement which almost made our hearts stand still with consternation. The President was shot last night in the Theater. When the morning paper was issued he was still alive although little or no hopes were entertained of his recovery but now the tolling bells tell us he has ceased to breath. He is dead. Mr. De Bust has just told Hannah he died at 1/2 7 o’clock. Deeply must the country mourn his death for although uncouth & ungainly he was true hearted magnanimous and kind and in the present crisis ready to follow [[strikethrough]] the [[/strikethrough]] such a course with the defeated lists some of the projects that still need volunteers, including the enormous English-Alabama and Alabama-English dictionary, a study of Native American languages compiled from 1906 to 1913, and “a report by archaeologist Langdon Warner, one of the Monuments Men and the inspiration for Indiana Jones.”


Julia Fleischaker is the director of marketing and publicity at Melville House.