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Walt Whitman, seated in a rocking chair, poses for a photograph. There is a table with bottles and flowers on the windowsill. Whitman has a long white beard.
An elderly Walt Whitman, sitting by an open window. Photo: Likely by Sophia Wells Royce Williams. Prints and Photographs Division.

Pride Month: Transcribe Walt Whitman?

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This is a guest post by Lauren Algee, a senior digital collection specialist in the Digital Collections Workflow Section.

Volunteers have been working over the past five years to transcribe the Library’s manuscripts of Walt Whitman, one of the nation’s most iconic poets, from three major collections. Can you help proofread the final 4,000 pages?

This June, the Library is hoping you’ll do just that as we celebrate Pride month.

Through By the People, the Library’s online crowdsourced transcription program, you can  transcribe and review historical texts across the Library’s collections, from Clara Barton’s diaries to Leonard Bernstein’s papers. Completed transcriptions are published on our website to enhance accessibility and enable keyword search.

Whitman — the author of letters, notes, essays, memoir materials, and poetry, including “Song of Myself,” “O Captain, My Captain!” and many other poems compiled in his momentous 19th-century masterpiece “Leaves of Grass” —  is one of voices that helped define the national character.

Walt Whitman, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, wearing hat. He has a bushy white beard and is wearing a suit coat and vest.
Walt Whitman in 1869. Photo: William Kurtz. Prints and Photographs Division.

The Library holds the largest number of Whitman materials in the world. Beginning with Whitman’s bicentennial birthday celebration in 2019, more than 3,700 volunteers have transcribed some 33,500 items, mostly handwritten pages, into typed text. Thanks to their work, anyone with access to the Library’s website from anywhere in the world can use keyword searches to help their research in the Library’s digital presentations of the Whitman collections. The transcriptions also enhance online access for those who need screen readers to understand the handwritten images.

This Pride month, again in Whitman’s honor, we’re looking to wrap up the project by encouraging volunteers to proofread the last 4,000 items of transcribed material. It’s the last, crucial step before transcriptions can be published to the website.

What would you be reviewing?

The papers that need work include correspondence, family papers and materials related to the production of Whitman’s books. But the vast majority fall into the varied and fascinating category of “miscellany” from the Charles E. Feinberg Collection of Whitman’s papers. Spanning from 1834 to 1918, these include autographs, correspondence, calling cards, programs, invitations, scrapbooks, railroad and ferry tickets, labels, wrappers and financial papers.

A printed program of a Walt Whitman Debating Society event.
A program of the Walt Whitman Debating Society. Manuscript Division.

These bits and pieces offer evidence about Whitman’s life and the activities of those who were close to him. There is evidence of his 1850s work in Brooklyn as a carpenter and contractor; his 1862 military passes to visit Army camps; the 1863 Christian Commission certificate for volunteering in Civil War military hospitals; his 1866 appointment for civil service work in the Attorney General’s office in Washington, D.C.; invitations to celebrations of his birthday during his Camden-Philadelphia years; annotated maps indicating travels; a copy of his will; and his sketched design for the Whitman burial vault at Harleigh Cemetery in Camden, New Jersey.

Here’s how you can jump in: Create an account, then explore the Walt Whitman campaign on By the People. Find a page that needs review and check that all the text is captured accurately. If everything is correct, just click “Accept!” If you need to make a few changes, click “Edit,” then save and resubmit the transcription for another volunteer to review. It’s that easy!

Every page you review brings us one step closer to completing this project and meeting our Pride month goal. We also hope you will reflect on the amazing life Whitman led as you encounter his life and words firsthand and contribute to his ongoing legacy.

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