If you’ve ever had to do research in an archive or been lucky enough to have to transcribe original documents, sometimes it may seem like there’s no end is sight (especially if you work at one of the archives or libraries trying to find a way to transcribe and digitize your collection). This article was a short interview with Nicole Saylor, the head of Digital Library Services for the University of Iowa Libraries.
Like untold numbers of historic sites and libraries with Civil War collections, Saylor and the University of Iowa Libraries began looking to try and transcribe their vast Civil War diaries and letters collections in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (which started this past July). But they quickly realized they were short on man-power, money, and time. What is a digital librarian to do? Well, ask and you shall receive! Saylor and her colleagues “crowdsourced” the Civil War by digitizing the letters and diaries and making them available to the public. They created a website where transcribers can choose a document, transcribe it in a niffy box, and email it to them for review. The letter I transcribed last week is being reviewed by Saylor’s team as we blog!
Saylor said she had no idea how successful the project would be, and even faced resistance from staff members asking “is the public qualified to transcribe?” She simply stated they weren’t looking for perfect, but for engagement. Well thay certainly got that and more, when the site crashed it first day due to the overwhelming traffic. Several transcribers who have spent numerous hours on he project have told Saylor they feel as if these writers have become members of their family. Gotta love Civil War nerds, right?
This project at the University of Iowa Libraries is very similar to the “What’s On the Menu?” project being undertaken at the New York Public Library. Both projects represent steps towards not only engaging the public, but actively enlisting their participation in the continued success of the collections and institutions. Such a project ten years ago would have been unheard of! But not all historians necessarily feel the same.
Engagement and participation, yes. But the public transcribing? Can that be their domain as well? The internet has opened up questions of authority and ethics for historians. Is transcribing something better left to eager interns and historians? Or could we think of other institutions who could benefit from reaching out to the public for their help? What potential downsides could such a project create? Would it be more time-consuming to weed through other transcribers work that to do it yourself? Whether you’re a Civil War nerd or not, it is a very cool idea that you have been a part of preserving part of the past. So go on, and pick a letter to transcribe!