A few weeks ago, The Chronicle published an article about a new crowdsourcing project to transcribe the papers from the U.S. War Department (1784 to 1800). Although a fire at the War Department destroyed most of the papers during this time period, historians have recently tracked down copies of most of the documents and recreated the archive. They’ve digitized the documents and, with the help of a new transcription tool from George Mason University, they are inviting volunteers to view and help transcribe the documents.
The archive itself is a treasure trove, even for a Canadian historian. To get a better sense of the project, I signed up to help and try my hand at transcribing online.
If you are seeking out a particular document of topic, there are different ways to search the archive. Since I was just transcribing to learn more about the process, I simply browsed the archive until something caught my eye. I settled on a document titled: “Wilkinson's Various Accusations Against Generals Wayne & Scott, & Defense of Own Reputation.” I knew Wilkinson’s reputation was a bit tarnished after the War of 1812, so I was interested to see why he had his back up 20 years earlier.
Transcribing an 18th century document is no easy task, but Scripto helps the process quite a bit. The digitized documents are high quality, and the tool allows you to zoom in and move around the document is necessary. The screen is split, with the original document on top, and a window for you to type your transcription at the bottom.
It took me about 20 minutes to transcribe the 1st of Wilkinson’s 13 page diatribe, but mostly because I scrutinized over a few words that I just couldn’t decipher. I learned that it’s best to just keep moving when you get stuck — often just a bit more context can magically make these words appear.
This isn’t the first example of this type of crowdsourcing project and, I’m sure there will be many more in the coming years. As archives become more strapped for cash, and demand for online access increases, I can see these types of projects as a possible solution.
Some naysayers are concerned that such projects won’t work, or will be more work for the staff and organizations in the long-run. Will people actually spend their time hovered over their computers, scrutinizing over 18th century handwriting? Will they really be interested in spending hours to transcribe the “boring” records? Will an average person have the skill required to transcribe these documents accurately?
These are fair questions to ask, but I don’t find them particularly concerning. Archives and museums were founded by “amateur” historians and today volunteers make up a significant portion of the heritage industry. Sometimes people do things simply for the love of it.
As for the quality control, I feel that the wiki model has proven itself by now. Anyone who views the documents in this archive can read its corresponding transcription and make any necessary changes or edits.
I think this is a great way to encourage participation, increase output, and provide access to documents that may otherwise go unused. People doing historical research would be the primary users, but I can see this activity also being beneficial to lots of other groups, including our classrooms. Transcribing documents would be a great way to engage with primary sources, and students will benefit from seeing their work online and knowing they made a meaningful contribution to our historical resources.
I had a quick look for similar projects taking place in Canada, although I didn't find any projects of this scale. There probably are smaller crowdsourcing projects in Canada, and I’m sure with the centennial of WWI and the 150th anniversary of Confederation that we’ll be seeing more of these in the coming years.