Transcription, Or the Perfect Public Humanities Project for the Quarantined Hermit

May 19, 2020

Read something. Type the words into a text box. That’s it. Transcription of materials in historical archives is a straight-forward and simple task anyone can do for a number of institutions, and from home. During this time of absolute uncertainty it feels great to be able to genuinely contribute to something, with minimal effort required.

As part of my “Methods in Public Humanities” course with Professor Susan Smulyan, I had the opportunity this spring semester to immerse myself in the world of online transcription projects. I looked mostly at the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution, but there are many independent projects as well. For instance, one of my classmates worked on The American Soldier for Zooniverse.

Why do transcription projects matter for these archives? Well, it may not sound exciting for non-history lovers, but it makes records more accessible and searchable. Now scholars (and non-scholarly nerds) anywhere in the world can use these easily searchable records in their research. Every word becomes searchable, surpassing the limitations of searching by title, artist, and tags.

Can I really say I’m “practicing public humanities” from my couch, just because I’m transcribing historical records? Yes, yes, 100% yes. Contributing to an archival project at a historical institution, regardless of how “easy” it may be, is public humanities work. Not only are you helping to strengthen these archives by improving future accessibility, you are in effect doing your own historical research. And keep in mind that LOC and SI, and countless other institutions, have transcription projects to accommodate an impressive array of interests, with topics ranging from the Civil War to Jackie Robinson, along wit early twentieth century botany, Caribbean folk music, astrophysics. I searched through countless transcription projects before settling in with The Blackwells: An Extraordinary Family (LOC). Transcription projects like this benefit the public just as much as they do specific repositories and the individual researcher.

Why are transcription projects particularly relevant right now? Well, considering COVID-19’s impacts on public humanities spaces across the globe, a socially-distant but altogether engaging and interesting project like transcription shouldn’t be overlooked. Also, with the current spike in unemployment, many people are looking for ways to occupy their time: enter transcription projects. Anyone can contribute. Most websites don’t require you to make an account in order to participate. And you can contribute as little or as much as you want. You want to drop in on that transcription of a New York Times article about women’s suffrage, type two sentences, and peace out? You can do that. You want to spend five hours straight transcribing documents about Abraham Lincoln? You can do that. Every single contribution is meaningful and helpful towards the final goal, and you don’t even have to wear pants! In case I’ve piqued your interest in working on a transcription project, here are some pointers I’ve learned along the way:

Review each individual institution’s instructions before starting. It may be tempting to just jump into a project, but you might make easily preventable mistakes in your transcription.

My partner started transcribing records for the Library of Congress without reading any instructions. And let me tell you, he did all of the spacing wrong. The LOC asks that transcribers type lines exactly as they appear to make it easier for your work to be reviewed, i.e. hit Enter when the original document starts a new line. So it’s very important to know the basics before jumping in.

If you are transcribing for multiple institutions, remember that there may be some subtle differences in their guidelines.

For instance, regarding transcribing words that have been crossed out: LOC says, If you can read crossed out or otherwise deleted text, transcribe the deleted words within a pair of square brackets. Example: “I have always loved [vanilla] coffee ice cream.” But the Smithsonian Institution prefers a slightly more detailed action: Please write "strikethrough" or "crossed-out," when appropriate, in double brackets before and after the word or phrase that has been struck out or deleted. For example: I really [[strikethrough]] hate [[/strikethrough]] don't like the smell of rotten eggs. OR I really [[crossed-out]] hate [[/crossed-out]] don't like the smell of rotten eggs. These are both very easy to follow; you just have to know which one to do. I kept the guidelines for whatever institution I was working with open in another tab on my internet browser.

Don’t make assumptions about words. Read every individual word carefully, to preserve the original spelling (and misspelling).

Mistakes such as misspellings may reveal a lot about the author and the time period in which they were writing. LOC suggests typing words exactly as they were originally spelled, and adding tags to the document with the correct spelling if it impacts the document’s searchability.

Don’t be afraid to turn to Google if you’re unsure what you’re reading!

Kazden blog image 1.jpgAfter transcribing this hand-written letter, I looked up each unfamiliar name as I had read them, as a sort of insurance on their spellings. I found that, in fact, I had read Geo. Wm. Curtis and Bayard Taylor’s names correctly (to my surprise). However, I had made an error in transcribing another name. Embarrassing as it is to admit, I had read Rev. Henry Ward Beecher as “Rev. Henry Hand Beecher” (see below). But that was my own misreading, not a misspelling by the author, so I corrected it in the transcription.

Kazden blog image_fragment.png

Which brings me to this: all transcriptions will be reviewed for accuracy before they are officially submitted.

Knowing that another person’s eyes will verify every transcription makes me personally feel more comfortable transcribing documents. This takes away some of the stress and pressure, since you have some breathing room.

Here are some of the highlights of my experience as a transcriber over the past two weeks:

When I was transcribing this journal entry, I stumbled upon a brief reference to William Henry Harrison’s 1840 presidential campaign. Nineteenth- century American political history is my jam - the Whig party in particular - so this reference was a pleasant surprise:​

Kazden blog image 2_2_0.jpgOrthodox minister took them all to a political meeting in favor of "Tippecanoe + Tyler Too," + let them stay till 11











My favorite transcribed document so far would probably be this compilation of news articles about Alice Stone Blackwell. Here’s an excerpt from one article describing the historical figure’s fashion sense:​

Kazden blog image 3_2_0.jpgShe is as independent in mind as in dress. She is as ready to throw off the restrains society seems to have placed on Woman's mind, as she is to cast aside what she considers an absurd fashion in dress. Without endorsing the eliminated petticoats, we cannot but admire Miss STONE'S "stern old Saxon pluck"--her total independent of the tyranical laws of the God, Fashion. Her dress is : First, a black velvet coat, with collar fastened in front with buttons; next, a skirt of silk reaching to her knees; then she "wears the breeches," of black silk, with gaiters.








Within that same compilation of articles, this excerpt describing Mr. Blackwell’s speech at a Women’s Rights Convention sounds like the “mansplaining” of today, and I got a kick out of it:

Kazden blog image 4_1_0.jpgMr. BLACKWELL, of Ohio, addressed the convention. Upon a remark suggested by a member that woman should have the preference in speaking--that men should keep quiet, he replied that he owed no apology to this convention for addressing them--he was the son of a woman, and the brother of a woman!

Mr. BLACKWELL spoke too long. He forgot it was a Woman's Convention.








As I mentioned at the start, transcription projects are an easy way to contribute to museums and archives from the safety of your own home. They require minimal effort while legitimately contribute to the accessibility of these institutions. In case you too are a public humanist at heart and find yourself trapped inside with lots of time and little to do, here are some links to try it out:

Smithsonian Institution:

Library of Congress:

The American Soldier:

Freedom on the Move:

Papers of the War Department 1784-1800: ​

From the Page: ​


Amanda Kazden is a first-year student in the Public Humanities MA Program and an Exhibitions Assistant at the John Hay Library.