Making History – Transcribe (Library of Virginia)

For the crowd-sourcing project this week, I contributed to the transcription efforts of the Library of Virginia through Making History-Transcribe. At any given time, they have five to ten active collections of documents to be transcribed. Currently, the collections available range from an 18th-century two-volume manuscript on landscape, to letters from the Civil War, to life stories collected by a state-sponsored segment of the Federal Writer’s Project during the Depression. Each collection is headed by a brief description of what the collection consists, its significance, and how it came to be in possession of the Library, if applicable. Once the transcription of a document has been completed and approved, it will be added to the library’s digital collection.

I ultimately decided to transcribe several pages from Volume One of Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s “Essay on Landscape.” Latrobe was a naturalist, architect, and traveler who had prepared the two volumes over the years 1798 and 1799 for the great-granddaughter of a Virginia governor who had been studying painting and drawing with him. The process was pretty straightforward, and not too mentally demanding. The viewer for the document allowed me to easily zoom in and out of the image, but though you could expand the viewer to see more of the document at once, it only expanded vertically. I very much wish I could have expanded it horizontally and repositioned the text box for transcription below the image. Since I was not able to manipulate the layout all that much, I could only see half the page at a time and was constantly shifting the document from left to right and back again for each line of writing. Aside from that complaint, the process was fairly enjoyable as the pages I looked out (Pages 50-52) included a couple anecdotes, including one about the Siege of York(town) involving a Duke and American canoneer making a bet. This is a project that I definitely could see myself going back to again if I wanted something to lightly work on with a TV show on in the background.

There is a review process for the crowd-sourced transcriptions, but my initial impression of the website was that the review process was not being kept up with regularly. Each document has a status that reads “Not Started”, “___ % Started”, “Needs Review”, and “Completed.” A staff member of the library, or a previously approved transcriber, are the only ones able complete the review process, and there seemed to be a surprising number of documents suspended in the “Needs Review” status. However, when I revisited the site today to take a look at the pages I had transcribed two days ago, I found they had been marked “Completed” and my question marks about a couple of uncertain words had been addressed, so perhaps my first impression was incorrect. It is also possible to set up an account to track the documents you have worked on, however you must email the library directly, since their online account setup had been suspended due to spamming.

Though the manuscript I looked at had quite legible handwriting for my twenty-first century eyes, the Colonial-era papers put up for transcription were another story altogether. The library did link to some tips for how to approach pre-1800 handwriting, but those papers seemed a little inaccessible for a first-time transcriber such as myself, and it seemed very few had yet been started. Another issue with this initiative is that some of the scans available for transcription are not nearly of as high of quality as others. I had initially taken a look at the Civil War documents, but of those left to transcribe, many of the images where of too poor of quality for me to really make out the writing. It looked liked lovely, clear script in the smaller image, but after zooming-in to a comfortable reading distance, the image became very pixelated.

Despite these concerns, the project seems to be going along quite well, with 136 active users and nearly 10,500 total pages transcribed. I think one aspect of this success comes from only focusing on a selection of collections at a time. There is enough variety to hopefully grab the interest or curiosity of those wishing to contribute to the effort, but it also allows the library to prioritize the work being done by focusing the attention of the volunteers on specific areas of the library’s collection.

I am a second-year M.A. student in Northeastern's Public History Program and received my B.A. in History from Carleton College in 2011.

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