Practicum: Library of Congress’s By the People

The Library of Congress’s By the People website invites volunteers to aid the Library in transcribing and reviewing digitized archival materials. Launched in Fall 2018, this initiative has resulted in the transcription of over 400,000 pages by over 28,000 registered users and countless unregistered volunteers.

By the People’s landing page.

Anyone can contribute to this project! You don’t even need to make an account, although registering will allow you to review and tag pages.

Clicking the “Get Started” tab will take you to the Welcome Guide, which walks users through the contribution process. After reading the linked instructions, you can choose a campaign to contribute to. Each campaign features an archival collection such as, for instance, papers concerning Walt Whitman.

The Walt Whitman Campaign. Along with a short description of the collection, the page includes a chart showing how the campaign is progressing.

To make a transcription, navigate to the desired document and begin typing in the box on the right. Make sure you read the instructions first! You can also click the “Quick Tips” button at the bottom of the page if you need a reminder about transcription standards. When you’re done, click the “Submit for Review” button.

To review another volunteer’s transcription, you’ll need to have a registered account. If you already have an account, you can simply review their transcription, make any necessary edits, and accept the final product.

Along with instructions and the campaigns themselves, the By the People site also includes a discussion forum where volunteers can ask questions and solicit help with transcriptions; an About page with statistics, press coverage, and FAQs; and a list of resources. This list includes lesson plans, tutorial videos, Transcribe-a-Thon How-To’s, and all sorts of other resources for students, educators, and the general public.

The LoC’s By the People project is a great way to give back to your community, even fulfilling some community service requirements. You can get first-hand experience working with primary source documents and contributing to a world-wide public history project. Give it a try and let us know how it goes!

Practicum: Wikipedia

A generation of American schoolkids has grown up hearing the refrain, “Wikipedia is not a reliable source.” The Wikipedia of today, however, is a different beast than the Wikipedia of the early aughts. What was once a poorly-maintained, amateur website is now an encyclopedic juggernaut with strict editing rules and constantly updated articles.

While Wikipedia is no longer the unreliable source that our school librarians warned us about, viewers should still be careful to vet each article before trusting its information. There is a long history of hoax articles and vandalism on Wikipedia, and you should never trust its articles at face value. There are several ways to go about checking for accuracy and controversy, most notably the “Talk” page and the “View History” page.

The “Talk” and “View History” tabs on the Harriet Tubman Wikipedia page.

“Talk” Pages

As most students know, the first step when vetting a Wikipedia article is to scroll down to the References section, where you can often find links to historical monographs and primary sources. Lesser known, however, is the “Talk” page. Talk pages list Wikipedia’s ratings of each article’s importance and accuracy and serve as a forum for community members to discuss ways of improving the article.

The talk page for the article on Robert E. Lee, for example, describes it as a level-4 vital article, meaning Wikipedia editors voted on it being an “essential” topic worthy of an especially high-quality entry. It is also classified as a B-Class article, meaning that it could benefit from more editing and expert knowledge. The talk page for Harriet Tubman’s article, on the other hand, also identifies the page as a level-4 vital article, but rates it as a Featured Article (FA-Class). Whereas Wikipedia editors have identified both Robert E. Lee and Harriet Tubman as important, the quality of the Harriet Tubman article is within the top .1% of all articles on the English-language Wikipedia.  

You can also check the article’s rating by looking at the icons in the upper right hand corner of the article itself. The star shows that this article is FA-Class, while the padlock shows that this article is semi-protected from rogue edits. Its semi-protected status implies that, like many FA-Class pages, this article has previously been subject to vandalism.

On the other hand, the article on “Black Dispatches,” or Civil War espionage provided by Black Americans, is classified as a Start-Class article, only one step above the lowest accepted rating, “Stub.” This article is also ranked as “Low-importance” in a couple different categories, meaning that Wikipedia editors have determined that its information is not particularly vital to those topics. While future scholarship might highlight the importance of Black Dispatches, the current consensus is that they are incidental to the histories of the United States and espionage. For now, viewers interested in Black espionage during the Civil War will have to read up on individual spies like Harriet Tubman to get more complete information.

The header on the Black Dispatches talk page.

The quality of discussion on talk pages can vary wildly. On the Robert E. Lee talk page, for instance, one can see respectful debates on how to interpret his views on race and how soon to mention his culpability in defending the institution of slavery. On the Harriet Tubman page, however, some comments are less respectful.

Fortunately, users like “Plain English1” are the exception rather than the rule.

While the talk pages can contain inflammatory rhetoric, Wikipedia’s strict standards and constant revision generally stops this sort of bias from making it into the article itself. To view the edits that have actually made the cut, viewers can check the “View History” tab.

“View History” Pages

In the “View History” tab, viewers can see a log of all edits made to the article.

The edit history of the Robert E. Lee Wikipedia page.

Along with this log, one of the handiest tools is the “Page Statistics” external link. Here, viewers can see everything from page views to word counts to connections with other Wikipedia articles. Most importantly for scholars is information on authorship: tables and pie charts showing who contributed the most to each article.

Among other functions, Page Statistics show who contributed the most to an article.

The page statistics for Black Dispatches, for instance, shows that user Tfine80 contributed 82.4% of authorship. Examining Tfine80’s user page shows that they are an avid contributor to Wikipedia, often translating German-language articles to English. While there is little information about Tfine80’s credentials, user pages can give a general “vibe check” for viewers who want to know more about an article’s authors. One might trust Tfine80, for example, more than they trust ScottishFinnishRadish.

This radish has only two enemies on its “arc-enemies” list. That’s two more than I expected.

As an open source, freely accessible encyclopedia, Wikipedia is unmatched. It still, however, suffers from biased authorship as most contributors to English Wikipedia are white, Western men. As you can see from the inflammatory rhetoric on the Harriet Tubman talk page and the underdeveloped Black Dispatches article, the site is still plagued by both overt and subtle racial bias. Wikipedia itself has acknowledged that it has a problem with race as well as sex and gender . Tools like the Talk and View History pages can help you identify biases and better understand why Wikipedia looks the way it does.

I’m interested to know if anyone in this class has contributed to Wikipedia. If so, what was your experience like? Did you engage with other editors on the Talk pages? Let us know in the comments!

Introducing Myself: Jessica

Hello folks!

My name is Jessica Shainker, and I’m a first year Public History Masters student at American University. I was raised in Atlanta, Georgia, and I received my bachelor’s degree from Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee, where I studied history with a concentration in public history. 

Selfie of Jessica Shainker wearing a tank top and a white bandana. In the background are trees and a scenic view of the bluffs overlooking the Buffalo River.
Hiking in the Ozarks!

While at Rhodes, I had the opportunity to intern at the National Civil Rights Museum (NCRM) at the Lorraine Motel, the site of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. At the NCRM, I worked as a collections intern creating a finding aid for the museum’s institutional archives. I also worked as a research assistant for the curatorial team.

My time at the NCRM is what prompted me to study public history and the history of the American South. This was in 2018, when Black Lives Matter protests were at their highest peak yet and the city of Memphis was steeped in the historical memory of 1968. Not only was Southern history all around me; it felt strikingly relevant and deeply urgent. The unjust deaths of black men and women at the hands of the state were (and continue to be) hyper visible. Outdated rhetoric that remembers American history as idyllic was making a comeback on the political stage, and partisans on both sides of the aisle – but conservatives in particular – were drawing on skewed images of the past to justify their political goals. The history of my region was being deliberately misinterpreted and weaponized by people who only half understood it.

I want to communicate the true history of the American South to people of all political leanings in ways that are accessible, without holding back the tough stuff that folks might not want to hear. History can be deeply uncomfortable, and I want to help find ways to convey history accurately despite that discomfort.

I’m interested in digital history, exhibit design, and the history of the American South, especially the history of capitalism in the South during the Antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras. In this class, I’m most looking forward to learning about computational history and mapping technology. In a post-COVID world, digital exhibits are the best way to reach a broad public, and digital maps are fantastic ways to visually show change over time. And as a citizen of the 21st century, I want to take advantage of computing algorithms and all the other new tools available to perform innovative kinds of historical analysis. 

A few more notes about me: I go by Jessica or Jess. While I’ve lived in DC for the past few years, I recently moved into an apartment in Tenleytown with my boyfriend Ben. We like hiking, rock climbing, cooking, and playing video games with friends. I recently picked up knitting, which has filled my free time and made my fingers sore. My only regret is that I don’t get to live with the family dog, a ridiculous black lab named Oakley.

A black labrador sitting awkwardly on a couch. His back legs are splayed open and his tail is held between his front paws.
This is one of his standard sitting positions.

I’m looking forward to this semester and hope to learn all I can about digital history!