Crowdsourcing the Civil War: Preserving the past and future

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!

7 Replies to “Crowdsourcing the Civil War: Preserving the past and future”

  1. And now my Sunday night will be dedicated to transcribing documents 🙂

    One question I have, and I didn’t see this/could have missed this in the article, but when individuals transcribe things, do they also add “tags” or “keywords” to the documents? Or should they if they don’t?

    One concern I have, and have with other public transcription/tagging projects, is that there would be no mainstreamed, selected choices of what keywords can be used. To that end, one user could “tag” a document, say a letter to a Confederate soldier from his wife concerning their slaves during the war, as “wife”, “woman”, “marriage”, “slave”, “slavery”, or “South”, etc and alter what comes up in a search for the document. If “wife” and “woman” are left out, a historian researching female voices from the South might overlook it.

    On the other hand, having a wide array of keywords applied to documents might also open the possibilities and give researchers a broader selection of documents under a general search.

  2. I think this idea of crowdsourcing is a great way to, as the article said, engage the public by encouraging them to participate in the transcription process of these documents. It also allows the folks at the University of Iowa Libraries a quick and easy way to get their collections ready for the sesquicentennial. This case differs from past controversies over digital exhibits and shared authority because the public isn’t offering any interpretive insight. The documents are transcribed and later edited by a highly qualified team, almost Wikipedia-esque. I would think that placing the transcription process in the hands of the public would be much more efficient than a handful of historians sitting down to do it themselves. And witnessing such an eager response to transcribe these collections should be seen an affirmation of the public’s interest in preserving the past. Wherever and whenever the public can assist with a historical project, they should be motivated to do so.

  3. Despite the noted deficiencies of crowdsourcing, in a world where scholars are increasingly demanding access to digital materials, and funding is constantly on the decline, it might be the only viable way. Consider the case of the U.S. National Archives. Although they have digitized some of their most commonly viewed collections, they admit that given the immense amount of materials they receive every day, coupled with their lack of available staff, they will never be able to digitize more than a fraction of a percentage of their entire collection.

    And yet, every single day, there are hundreds of researchers working in their reading rooms, many taking digital photographs and/or transcribing documents on the spot. If the National Archives were to open up a crowdsourcing site, I would wager that the majority of these researchers would gladly upload the files they have digitized in order to help contribute to the project.

    This would not only make history more accessible to other researchers who may not have the time/funds to travel to the physical location, it would also make primary source history more accessible to the general public who otherwise would never interact with these documents.

  4. Katie,

    You’re right, there isn’t a system of tags for the transcribers. The readers at the University of Iowa Libraries reviews the transcriptions just so they become text searchable.

    Corey and Allen,

    I’m right there with you! Think of the possibilities hidden in historical societies, archives, university libraries that could benefit from crowdsourcing. I started thinking, aren’t historic sites and museums always on the look out for ways to better engage and reach out to the public? The overwhelming traffic Saylor’s site had on its first day proves just how successful the project has been. I would be curious if high school students could be engaged to help with such projects as well. It may even convince some parents whose kids decide to become history majors in college that their lives won’t be over after they graduate.

  5. I agree that crowdsourcing offers an exciting way to engage the public with history and utilize volunteers to start the daunting process of digitizing large amounts of records.

    The National Archives recently launched their Citizen Archivist Dashboard at to offer the public a chance to tag records and upload documents.

    They also last week launched their pilot Transcription Project at with about 500 documents. I know already in under a week the majority of these documents have already been transcribed! The public is definitely eager to engage with history online


  6. The digital age is a relatively new phenomenon.Therefore, there are so many documents, books, diaries, speeches, etc., that have yet to be digitized. In today’s world with an ever stressful economy and an even tougher job market, many libraries and organizations cannot afford to to quickly digitize and transcribe all materials. This article highlights a great idea for getting the transcription process on track. Crowdsourcing involves the general public. Anyone interested in transcribing documents, in this project and others, can do so when they want, from home or school or even a library. This idea is genius. It saves money, time and resources all the wile getting the work done, making a vast array of information available and easier to decipher than before. I think that Nicole Saylor describes the project very well. She is enthusiastic about her own project with outsourcing the Civil War and enthusiastic about the prospect of Crowdsourcing for future projects. This idea is great in the digital age when resources are crunched. It is also a great idea for public history. Saylor mentions the Roy Rosenzweig center for new media. Rosenzweig was a big proponent of the general public being historians in there own right. Overall this was an interesting blog post for an even more interesting and useful interview.

  7. Great conversation here and great post.

    I just wanted to seed a few more points into this discussion. One point, our transcriptions and cataloging has long been a volunteer activity. In many cases it was volunteers who physically showed up at libraries. This is to say that the distinctions between pros and amateurs has its own history and that much of that history involved people who weren’t being paid who showed up in person and with minimal training helped make historical materials more accessible.

    I thought I might also drop in a few different links related to a series of unfortunate neologisms that are apparently along for the ride which are similarly tied up in crowdsourcing:

    Take these as further reading for anyone interested 🙂

    First up, there is playbor (something between play and labor)

    Second up is gameification (many crowdsourcing projects pivot on this attempt to get people to do things with alleged game mechanics)

Leave a Reply to Scott Mendenhall Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *