You can't rewrite history, but you can re-type it
May 3, 2020 8:53 PM   Subscribe

Can you read your grandma's handwritten recipe cards, or your great-grandfather's old letters? Turn your cursive skills to something useful -- help an archivist transcribe a document! The United States National Archive's "Citizen Archivist" initiative seeks volunteers to help out with documents from a wide range of areas, from correspondence from job-seekers at the Schyuylkill Arsenal during the US Civil War to the 1975 trial of Leonard Peltier: But if these topics don't interest you, there are lots more projects under the fold.

Libraries and archives are turning to volunteers to help out with transcribing handwritten documents, tagging them, and adding comments to existing transcriptions. All of these activities help make often inaccessible historical documents available to the public, both by making them readable and by making them easier to find in online catalogs and search engines.

Help the Smithsonian Institute make historical documents and biodiversity data more accessible by transcribing field notes, diaries, ledgers, logbooks, currency proof sheets, photo albums, manuscripts, biodiversity specimens labels, and more. (previously, previously, previously)

The Library of Congress has several transcription campaigns going on right now. If your Spanish is good, they're in particular need of people to help transcribe documents written in Spanish, Latin, and Catalan between 1300 and 1800, and open the legal history of Spain and Spanish colonies to greater discovery.

If your Spanish is good and you've got some paleography skills, Neogranadina offers opportunities for students, researchers, and history buffs to contribute to the cataloging of thousands of digitalized documents from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries held by Colombian archives.

Volunteer with the Boston Public Library to turn its collection of handwritten correspondence between anti-slavery activists in the 19th century into texts that can be more easily read and researched by students, teachers, historians, and big data applications.

Freedom on the Move is a transcription project that draws on an archival collection housed at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. With the advent of newspapers in the American colonies, enslavers posted “runaway ads” to try to locate fugitives. Additionally, jailers posted ads describing people they had apprehended in search of the enslavers who claimed the fugitives as property. Transcribers can help transform the ads into a searchable database. (previously)

Chicago's Newberry Library seeks help in transcribing letters and diaries that reveal everyday life in the 19th and 20th century. Areas include family life in the Midwest, American Indian history, and U.S. western expansion.

University College London's project to transcribe original and unstudied manuscript papers written by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), the great philosopher and reformer, has won multiple awards.

Interested in colonial US history? Harvard's libraries need volunteers to help transcribe 18th-century handwritten materials from its North America Collection.

The Library of Virginia has a plethora of transcription projects, from private papers and business records that contain biographical details of enslaved people, to petitions, court records, summonses, patents, accounts, proceedings, returns, grants, proclamations, and more from Virginia's colonial past.

Help transcribe “Information Wanted” advertisements taken out by former slaves searching for long lost family members. The ads taken out in black newspapers mention family members, often by name, and also by physical description, last seen locations, and at times by the name of a former slave master.

Phillips Academy seeks volunteers to help transcribe legal documents, letters, books, and original works of several members of the Phillips family including Samuel Phillips (founder of Phillips Academy Andover) and his uncle John Phillips (founder of Phillips Exeter Academy).

The United Kingdom's National Archives "Africa Through a Lens" project aims to improve knowledge of colonial period Africa photographs. They seek volunteers who might recognize anything or anyone in the photographs, or can help identify inaccuracies in the descriptions and help us to map the images for which they don't have locations.

Stanford University has multiple transcription projects up and running, including materials related to the 1906 earthquake, the papers of railroad mogul/robber baron Leland Stanford, and more.

The Georgian Papers Programme (GPP) is a ten-year interdisciplinary project to digitize, conserve, catalogue, transcribe, interpret and disseminate 425,000 pages or 65,000 items in the Royal Archives and Royal Library (UK) relating to the Georgian period, 1714-1837.

The papers of the War Department, which burned in 1800, recorded not just the military history of the early United States, but Indian affairs, veteran affairs, naval affairs (until 1798), as well as militia and army matters. Papers of the War Department 1784-1800, an innovative digital editorial project, seeks to reconstruct this lost archive through a painstaking, multi-year research effort available online to scholars, students, and the general public.

From the Page, a software for transcribing documents and collaborating on transcriptions, has a impressive list of transcription projects that may be of interest.
posted by pleasant_confusion (21 comments total) 71 users marked this as a favorite
Oooh! I had been spending some time in the National Archives catalog lately, but had somehow never thought of clicking that little blue "View/Add Contributions" link. Seems that it is possible to contribute tags and transcriptions for every document in the catalog, even those not featured on the Citizen Archivist page. Eeeeee!

(The web interface is suboptimal for me; others may similarly find it worthwhile to autodownload a whole document or chunk thereof and transcribe it locally. It looks like it would also be possible to auto-upload the transcription via the API, rather than fighting with the webserver to reload the interface over and over -- anybody if that would actually work, or if there are existing scripts to do it?)
posted by Not A Thing at 9:42 PM on May 3, 2020

Thank you so much for this! I have so much free time on my hands while on the job hunt for library work (during a pandemic, yay!) so this is the perfect thing for me to do and feel useful. I've had discussions with people about the fact that with so many schools no longer teaching cursive, the ability to read it will eventually become a specialized skill and being able to decipher handwritten documents will be valuable for archivists in the future. Computers can't do it yet, especially when ink is fading and uneven and with the sheer amount of variability in handwriting. While it will improve in the future, currently OCR still struggles to properly transcribe typed text let alone handwritten.
posted by acidnova at 9:56 PM on May 3, 2020 [2 favorites]

This is a very good collection!
posted by freethefeet at 1:48 AM on May 4, 2020

Project Zooniverse does the same thing and has a large number of active projects from around the world.

I participated in the rainfall rescue project to recover hundreds of years of rainfall records from across the UK, that project is now out of data to process.
posted by epo at 2:00 AM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Can you read your grandma's handwritten recipe cards,

I can and have, but largely it leads only to bafflement. I will find a recipe for a childhood favourite and see that she has helpfully written out:

Eggs (2)
Baking powder
Baking soda
Pinch salt

Cook in a hot oven until done
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:53 AM on May 4, 2020 [10 favorites]

And I bet they were the best pancakes and/or cookies ever, ricochet biscuit.
(or maybe it's more eponysterical than we might suspect … bulletproof baked goods for all!)
posted by scruss at 5:18 AM on May 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

oh this is great! My handwriting-reading skills have always been pretty good because I grew up with a mother who had an interest in calligraphy, so her handwriting is very swoopy and stylized (was this an anti-forging measure when I was a teen? absolutely - I did not have the skills to replicate a copperplate script) and I had to pretend to have notes from my Dad (which is less believable and often resulted in teachers just calling to check)!

I have done some genealogy stuff (wow "cirrhosis related to alcoholism" is a pretty hard sentence to read in script, but is the cause of death of more than one of my ancestors - good to know I guess!)

And old written out family recipes are lovely and fun. My great grandparents came to canada with some of their recipes written out which I now have and they come with lots of great instructions like "grind wheat to a fine powder" and "stoke oven to medium" honestly most of them aren't going to win any baking prizes, but it's a nice conduit to the past to have!
posted by euphoria066 at 8:03 AM on May 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Growing up in the 50's and 60's and learning the Palmer technique, I thought I'd be pretty good at this, at least compared to younger people. But, boy, some of these are difficult to decipher!
posted by kozad at 8:20 AM on May 4, 2020

I will find a recipe for a childhood favourite and see that she has helpfully written out
Has to be a recipe for plain gallete.
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 8:53 AM on May 4, 2020

I've been doing this! I have been transcribing the Nathan Kendall and Abby J. Reed letters. I transcribed a bunch from Nathan during the time when worked for the railroad in La Porte during the Civil War, and Abby stayed back on the farm with their children. Most of the letters were about how much they missed each other, updates of day-to-day stuff (Nathan is looking for a man to drive his horses back to the farm, etc) and Nathan spends a lot of time reminding Abby to do obvious things, like "watch the children closely" and "buy food please". The war itself is only mentioned whenever the relative of an acquaintance died.

It's fun, and once I got the hang of Nathan's handwriting quirks I was able to read them quite easily.
posted by Gray Duck at 8:58 AM on May 4, 2020 [3 favorites]

Thank you for including at least one Spanish-language option! Awesome post.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 10:48 AM on May 4, 2020

I was pretty enthusiastic until I clicked on one of the projects and got this page. Yikes, that handwriting is worse than mine!
posted by Monochrome at 10:48 AM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I will find a recipe for a childhood favourite and see that she has helpfully written out
Has to be a recipe for plain gallete.

Then sometimes I wonder if the word "shredded coconut (1 cup)" written sideways along the edge of the page is part of it, or just part of the choose-your-own-adventure style of cookery she indulged in.

I learned how to make pastry from her and once, after preparing something else, I had a bit of pastry left over. I looked around and saw I also had an apple or two, I reckoned I could make a turnover, so I assembled one, then called her up to check how long it should be baked for.

"Oh, just take it out when the pie is done."

"I am not making a pie."

"In that case, I have no idea."
posted by ricochet biscuit at 11:09 AM on May 4, 2020 [2 favorites]

Sheydem-tants, a friend just passed along this one, which might be of interest. I tried to find more in other languages (I work mainly in Spanish) and was surprised that I couldn't find more. They're probably out there, but my search skills seemed not to be up to the task of finding them.
posted by pleasant_confusion at 12:48 PM on May 4, 2020

I have confronted the Jane Addams archive, so I think it's safe to say that I am a frigging expert on deciphering indecipherable handwriting. On the other hand, Jane Addams's handwriting is so hard to read that the archive has a guide and that's not true of less-famous people with terrible penmanship.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 4:18 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

Awesome. I have someone to forward this to, but I'm also reminded of the medievalists in my first (truncated) grad program and how stunningly difficult their archival work was, in comparison to us modern comparative history types.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:20 PM on May 4, 2020

Also holy shit Monochrome y'aren't kidding. I'm one of those weirdos with very neat penmanship and terrible block printing. This particular type of scribble invokes my fear responses.
posted by aspersioncast at 10:24 PM on May 4, 2020 [1 favorite]

I just worked on some of FDR's fireside chat speeches. Quite interesting.
posted by kathrynm at 12:56 PM on May 5, 2020 [2 favorites]

Thanks for this post--I'm transcribing for that Library of Virginia project now!
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 8:38 AM on May 6, 2020 [1 favorite]

Anybody aware of anything similar for Australian institutions? I'm having a difficult time determining what terms to use when searching for local projects.
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:31 PM on May 7, 2020

Oh, this might be a good start:
posted by turbid dahlia at 4:35 PM on May 7, 2020

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