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An Interview with Matthew Nelson, Herencia Crowdsourcing Intern

A photo of Matthew Nelson

Matthew Nelson, an intern working on transcribing the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents. [Photo provided by Matthew Nelson]

Today’s interview is with Matthew Nelson, an intern working on transcribing the Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents crowdsourcing campaign at the Law Library of Congress

Describe your background.

I grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia (about thirty miles south of Washington, D.C.). I first became interested in history and Latin when my parents signed me up to take Latin in middle school. Since then, I’ve been involved with organizations like National Junior Classical League and National Senior Classical League, which have fostered my interest in history. Lately, I’ve grown more and more interested in studying distantly removed cultures. I think the exercise of studying civilizations we’re far removed from makes it easier to understand the present.

What is your academic/professional history?

Taking a Latin class in 7th grade jump-started my academic path. It started as just trying to knock out the language requirements for high school, but snowballed into taking Latin until I graduated, plus extra classes in history. I also ended up taking classes in French, Arabic, and Ancient Greek.

While living in Fredericksburg, I got my first part-time job working for the Central Rappahannock Regional Library (the public library in my area). To be honest, I only applied because I heard that the library pages didn’t have to talk to customers, but I fell in love with the library and have worked there on and off for years. When I got to college, I started tutoring Latin 101 through 202 and Linguistics 101 for my university.

After high school, I enrolled at Germanna Community College for a few semesters then transferred to University of Mary Washington, where I’m currently double majoring in classics and linguistics. I started off more interested in ancient literature, but lately I’ve shifted more and more towards a historical focus. This internship is my first time working really intensively with any specific collection of primary sources — and I’m loving it! After I finish my B.A., I’m torn between applying for graduate programs in history to teach or in library sciences to work in an academic or research library (like the Library of Congress!).

How would you describe your job to other people?

I spend most of my time double-checking the crowdsourced transcriptions volunteers have submitted. Sometimes, I end up doing a bit of research to find an abbreviation or looking up Latin words in a dictionary or reference book to infer a word where the document has faded. I also end up tackling the super-faded, super-cursive texts like this one.

Why did you want to work at the Library of Congress?

I had been going through museum websites looking for opportunities for this summer when I found the Herencia campaign, and I was fascinated. This immediately struck me as the meeting point of my work experience in public libraries and my interest in history, and it allows me to feel like I’m contributing to both fields. Personally, this internship is a great challenge as well. I’ve read a lot of Latin, but this is the first time I’ve been able to tackle Latin in the original manuscripts. Every time I get stuck on a line of super florid cursive or I have to go find the explanation for an abbreviation, I feel like I’m learning more about manuscript tradition.

What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the Law Library of Congress?

I learned recently that the Library of Congress was destroyed by fire twice, but the law collection survived both times (once because Thomas Jefferson replaced it afterwards, and once just by getting lucky). I wish we had gotten that lucky with the historical libraries in Alexandria and Baghdad!

What’s something most of your co-workers do not know about you?

I have taken ballroom dance for almost 10 years! I had to pause because of the coronavirus pandemic, but I have a lot of experience doing several dances, including the waltz, cha-cha, and rumba. I’m also on my university’s DIII Ultimate Frisbee team (The UMW Mother of George).

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