Crowdsourcing: Using Transcription to Bring Agency to Life

Transcribing primary source documents often represents a daunting, challenging aspect of historical cataloging. For many, dated language and difficult handwriting make transcribing archival data a barrier within scholarship. However, through the program Newberry Transcribe, collaborating transcriptions with others becomes a simple task that provides new insights into primary source analysis. Users hoping to utilize this resource simply need to subscribe by leaving their first and last names followed by their email addresses. Following the login, users can choose from a wide array of primary source documentation that needs transcription or a peer-review. For example, logging onto the website, I quickly found themes that interested me. As someone who takes a fascination with feminist/women’s history, the tab labeled “Women” immediately drew my attention and pointed me to a wide array of dairy entires, personal correspondences, and other primary source artifacts.

This is Newberry’s screen after clicking on the “Women” tab on the site’s homepage. Listed is Emma Wormwood’s diary from 1896. Following the links, the crowdsourcing project shows which articles need review, need additions/further transcriptions, and which ones are completed.

Clicking on one of the entries, hopeful transcribers can discern which pieces draw interest to their area of study and can provide insight into contextualizing language, sentence structure, and archaic vernacular. For example, if one clicks on diary entry #4, they are prompted to the entry. Users can zoom in/out to understand the words better and leave commentary underneath! At the bottom of the page lies the transcriptions of other subscribers, making it simple to unpack a historical document.

In terms of interface, the creators of this program certainly had collaboration as the primary mechanism for data-sharing. Weeding the different types of source material on women’s experiences, labor movements, or finding source material on indigenous Americans, were as simple as three easy clicks! For a first-time visitor, the website might, upon first glance, appear overwhelming due to the sheer number of loading screens that occur when you load into the site. Following this, visitors can quickly sort through the information thanks to thematic menus that link you to the material you are hoping to research. Want to learn more about The Civil War? Click the tab! Are you hoping to instruct your class on Indigenous agency and oppression? Newberry Transcribe has a readily available source list for your primary source needs! Interface-wise, this program works incredibly well for novice to expert researchers.

On the left are the thematic tabs. To the right are the collections of primary source material!

For modern historians, programs such as these make archival cataloging manageable and more organized. Researchers wading through Newberry’s archives can easily find the types of source material they need, be it thematic or by date. They can then collaborate with other researchers by looking at the transcribed language found on the lower portion of the screen. As an educator, however, this site has the potential to redefine primary source utilization in the classroom. For instructors hoping to bring diverse narratives into their classrooms to reflect the student-body demographic accurately, Newberry Transcribe allows further research into histories that may have been silenced or erased. For example, a U.S. History teacher hopes to do an active lesson on The Civil War by organizing a group discussion. Newberry Transcribe’s vast database allows the instructor to bring in a multitude of narratives from the perspectives of the enslavers, the enslaved, general soldiers, and bystanders during the shattering conflict. Historians, specifically history educators, are rewarded by utilizing digital programs for in-class usage. Moreover, sites such as this make teaching digital literacy in classrooms an easier task. Students are able to physically interact with, and interpert, primary source documents, allowing for a fuller understanding of methodological constructs.

In terms of likabiliy, Newberry Transcribe certinaly has more advantages than obstacles. Reading through the documentation was entertaining, enlightening, and inspired creativity. For many of the transciption sites I looked through, I felt overwhlemed, confused, or immediately left the page due to the sheer amount of information that aparated into my monitor. With Newberry Transcribe, these barriers were never an issue. I really enjoyed this project due in part to its wide collection of material I find interest in. The “Women’s” tab certianly opened my eyes to lived experiences I would have never understood without the transcripiton collaboration. While doing transcription is not within my wheelhosue of marketable skills, Newberry Transcribe allowed to begin understanding its signficance; I feel readily prepared to analyze documents with programs such as this.