Put It In (Digital) Writing: Transcribing The Amazing Jobs of Frederick Douglass with The Colored Conventions Project

February 22, 2017

Last week the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage took part in a national transcribe-a-thon to commemorate the “birthday” of Frederick Douglass (Douglass did not know his birth date but chose to celebrate on February 14th). Attendees were tasked with transcribing documents that had been collected and digitized by the Colored Conventions Project, a public-facing digital humanities initiative institutionally housed at the University of Delaware Library. The CCP is particularly interested in documents related to various gatherings of African-American activists and community leaders after the Civil War. In these meeting minutes, proclamations, petitions, and reports, we get a closer look at some  of the forms of labor, contentious debates, and varied voices that contributed to the important work of black resistance and community building going on in the nineteenth century.

Transcription may seem like a mundane or even dated way to contribute to a digital project in the twenty-first century: can’t scholars and archivists use optical character recognition (OCR) software to extract text from scanned documents? As someone who has worked on a number of digitization projects, I can tell you that the technology we imagine to be freely available doesn’t always match the realities of doing digital humanities scholarship, and the available resources can vary from project to project. While we are right to be suspicious of third-party platforms, apps, and social networks that ask for our personal data in exchange for use of their services, we are often not required to think as much about the labor that goes into the creation and support of our shiny digital interfaces. Do you know how Google Docs handle collaborative writing across a range of devices and issues related to version control when they arise as you’re drafting something? Have you ever wondered what makes Clippy so useful (or annoying)? Exposure to the nuts and bolts of a digital project like CCP can often help us gain new perspectives on the materiality of the web, the technical dimensions of systems and actions we take for granted, and the challenges of doing public-facing digital work that circulates alongside well-funded and well-oiled machines made by Google and other heavyweights on the web at-large.

In order for the CCP to truly “bring [these materials] to life for a new generation of students and scholars across disciplines” as well as “community researchers interested in the history of activist church, educational, and entrepreneurial engagement,” then it needs to take the time to consider how to make the data contained in these documents accessible and dynamic (in addition to other facets of curatorial work). Thankfully, the CCP has anticipated the varied audiences and the range of potential use-cases for its material, so it is putting in the time to do the work of digitization right.

It also has help, in the form of our quickly-assembled transcription team and similar groups of volunteers who dedicated time to the CCP this year. Brown University joined the University of Delaware, Loyola University’s Chicago and Maryland campuses, Northeastern University, and Boston University (among other schools) in lending the project a hand. We were given three documents to transcribe: “Proceedings of the Civil Rights Mass-Meeting held at Lincoln Hall, October 22, 1883” (including speeches from Douglass and others!), “Proceedings of the Connecticut State Convention of Colored Men held at New Haven, June 6th and June 7th, 1865” and “Proceedings of the Colored Men’s Convention of the State of Michigan, Held in the City of Detroit, Tuesday and Wednesday, Sept. 12th and 13th, 1865.” Over the course of two hours, our team was able to transcribe two of these documents and most of the third one! We were fueled by pizza and birthday cake (thanks for feeding us, Susan!), but I’m still impressed by how much we were able to get done in a short period of time.



I’m always particularly fascinated by what seems ephemeral or ancillary in these documents, so I naturally gravitated towards the job of transcribing some advertisements contained in the Lincoln Hall Proceedings document. Surrounding these speeches were pages inviting their readers to purchase new editions of “Popular Liberal Books” like Bible Myths and Modern Thinkers, What They Think, And Why. Digitization projects need to factor in considerations of use-value, imagined audiences, and time and labor commitments when making decisions about what to digitize and what to ignore in their projects of remediation. Will researchers care about handwritten marginalia (some of them definitely will!)? Should we digitize this poem again, even if we have a copy of it in this other newspaper (it depends, I guess!)? Is the paper quality important to record somewhere (maybe! to the metadata laboratory!)? The CCP, like many projects, has to think carefully about these questions while weighing their availability of resources and labor. I for one am thankful they kept the weird ads.

The Colored Conventions Project is one of many recent digital humanities initiatives that have thought carefully about what doing work for “the public” actually might look like and require in digital contexts. They’re thinking smartly and seriously about educational uses, connections between nineteenth-century activism and more recent initiatives, and other uses and audiences for these documents. Anyone looking for a model for how practitioners of digital humanities and public humanities might productively intersect and collaborate could learn from the CCP and their network of transcribers. And more locally, Brown University students and faculty can always swing by my office at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities to talk about these and other issues!

Jim McGrath is the Postdoctoral Fellow in Digital Public Humanities at the John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities. He has worked on several digital humanities projects, including Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive and Digital Humanities Quarterly. He is currently teaching a graduate-level course in Digital Storytelling here at Brown. You can find him on Twitter (@JimMc_Grath)or email him at james_mcgrath@brown.edu.

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