Julie Centofanti, a biology student at Youngstown State University, started a club at her university in 2020 to transcribe historical documents included in the Library’s By the People project. A longer version of this interview appears on the Signal blog.
How did you find out about By the People?
I’m a member of the Youngstown State University Sokolov Honors College, and we are required to earn 60 volunteer hours per year. Serving the community can be challenging for any college student, and the COVID-19 pandemic made it even harder.
So, I did what any college student would do: research virtual volunteer opportunities on the internet. Through my travels, I found BTP. I have always loved learning about history, and I discovered that the Library offers the perfect way to preserve history and earn volunteer hours!
Tell us about your club.
In summer 2020, I met with Mollie Hartup, the associate director of my honors college, and we discussed possibly hosting a virtual event for other honors students to transcribe historical documents. In August, we organized the first transcribe-a-thon on WebEx. Since then, we have hosted multiple transcribe-a-thons and now have biweekly two-hour meetings for students to earn volunteer hours in a virtual environment.
We start each meeting with a tutorial in which we review available BTP campaigns and documents to transcribe and review. Afterward, students log into the Library, choose a campaign and transcribe. During the session, students can ask questions by sharing their screens, and they collaborate to determine words or phrases that may be difficult to read.
At the end of the meeting, we discuss interesting documents we transcribed, along with the number of pages we transcribed or reviewed. Students earn Transcribing Club prizes, such as pins, pens and other gifts when they attend a certain number of meetings.
What are some interesting documents you’ve come across?
I have found countless documents interesting.
The first project I worked on was the Theodore Roosevelt campaign. I have always enjoyed reading about the personal documents that Roosevelt received, either from family or friends. While transcribing, I found an 1899 letter he received when he was governor of New York particularly interesting. It discusses the conditions of troops in the Philippines and promotions of exemplary officers.
As a biology student in the premedical track, I am also fascinated by health care from the past. Many documents in the Early Copyright Title Pages campaign discuss remedies for health problems. It is interesting to see similarities and differences in health care from the 1800s to today.
What advice do you have for first-time transcribers and students who might want to organize their own club?
For new transcribers, I would recommend treating each campaign or document with an open mind. Transcribing documents in cursive or illegible handwriting can be challenging, but each document has its own story.
To start, I would suggest a short document that is easy to understand. This will build confidence and a sense of accomplishment. If you cannot complete a page, save your work and move to the following document. Your time and dedication to the Library will be greatly appreciated.
For students looking to organize a college transcribing club, I would recommend reaching out to other students through a university newsletter, online forum or promotional posters or forming a group within your major.
Then, create a transcription tutorial on paper or video, so students are not intimidated or nervous to begin transcribing. The Library has resources to help you put together a transcription presentation. And I created a tutorial to use during my meetings.
From there, set up a meeting date. In a university setting, your transcribing club can be virtual or in person. Many students enjoy collaborating in person, so they can meet other students and help each other with difficult documents.
In any case, it is imperative to encourage students as they first begin transcribing. To do this, ensure that the students choose a campaign they would like to learn about or something that relates to their major.
Another way to encourage students is to set goals for them to attend meetings. For example, we have Transcribing Club levels for students who attend meetings. Students who attend 15 meetings earn the Bronze Award, students who attend 20 meetings earn the Silver Award and students who attend 30 meetings earn the Gold Award. Students also earn small prizes for reaching a new milestone.
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