Making Women’s Suffrage History More Discoverable through Transcription

This is a guest post by Lauren Algee, Senior Digital Content Management Specialist, Digital Collections Management & Services Division.

Since 2018, participants in the Library of Congress virtual volunteering program By the People have completed transcriptions of more than 143,000 pages of documents from the women’s suffrage collections in the Manuscript Division. Today, 11,000 suffrage pages are still waiting for peer review – and you can help!

By the People invites the public to explore and transcribe documents from the Library’s website. The By the People team and partners have released nearly 775,000 pages for transcription since 2018. The program invites a deep connection to the Library’s digital collections while facilitating collaborative creation of knowledge about those materials. When transcriptions are completed, developers integrate them back into the Library’s website, where they become word-searchable and readable by accessibility technologies.

Typed text next to text of an original manuscript.

Screenshot of a digitized page from a draft of a speech by Elizabeth Cady Stanton alongside its volunteer-created transcription on the By the People website.

One of the first campaigns that By the People launched in October 2018 consisted of selected series from the papers of suffragist and civil rights activist Mary Church Terrell.  The following summer, the Manuscript Division added the personal papers of movement leaders Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Anna E. Dickinson to By the People in anticipation of women’s suffrage centennial celebrations throughout 2019 and 2020. After the addition of these papers and media coverage focusing on women’s suffrage history, By the People saw a surge in inquiries and participation from members of the public motivated to contribute to enhancing discovery and access to these suffragist women’s stories. In 2021, the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Records and the Blackwell Family Papers were added, as well as the remainder of the Mary Church Terrell Papers. The 2021 Douglass Day transcribe-a-thon brought more attention to the Terrell Papers as volunteers participated in a day of service for Black digital history. The Library of Congress Music Division added a small campaign of pro- and anti-suffrage sheet music to By the People in February 2022.

Program cover showing a woman riding a white horse and blowing a trumpt with the U.S. Capitol in the background.

Official Program, Woman Suffrage Procession, Washington, D.C., March 3, 1913. NAWSA Records, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Volunteers complete transcriptions through a consensus model, which requires at least one volunteer to transcribe a page and at least one other volunteer to review and accept the transcription as whole and accurate. Volunteers completed the campaigns for the Anthony, Stanton, Dickinson, and Terrell Papers, along with the suffrage sheet music. Documents in the particularly expansive Blackwell Family Papers and NAWSA Records are not yet finished – you can help researchers of the future by becoming a suffrage reviewer!

The National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) Records document the activities of the organization. By reviewing transcriptions of these materials, you will discover NAWSA’s multifaceted history, including the activities of precursor organizations involved in the abolition and women’s rights movements, state and federal campaigns for women’s suffrage, the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and international women’s suffrage organizing.

In the Blackwell Family Papers, you’ll find the extraordinary history of one family’s commitment to social reform movements, including suffrage, abolition, and temperance. Materials still needing review include the papers of Lucy Stone and her daughter, Alice Stone Blackwell, who were both prominent in the women’s rights and women’s suffrage movements. Stone’s husband Henry Browne Blackwell and his sister Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first woman to earn a medical degree in the United States, and Elizabeth’s adopted daughter, Kitty Barry Blackwell, also feature prominently.

Alice Stone Blackwell, seated, holding copy of Woman’s Journal, which she edited, 1905. George Grantham Bain Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Completed transcriptions allow researchers to search the pages of these digital collections for names, places, and other key terms. It also improves readability for challenging handwritten text. We recently heard from author Melissa Koch about how volunteer transcriptions assisted her research on suffragist Lucy Stone through Stone’s correspondence with Susan B. Anthony: “I am also thankful for all the people transcribing the letters from cursive through the Library’s By the People project… it’s really exhausting reading letters in cursive when you don’t have a strong context or connection to the author.”

In addition to the transcriptions that sit alongside individual pages, the texts from retired By the People campaigns are also now published in bulk as datasets. These enable researchers to access the transcriptions from one campaign in a single, downloadable CSV file. Bulk data facilitates computational use, like language sentiment analysis and connecting named entities (such as people and places) through linked data. So far the Stanton, Anthony, and Carrie Chapman Catt transcriptions have been made available as datasets on loc.gov. Learn more about By the People datasets and their potential uses in this blogpost.

Can you help us finish reviewing the NAWSA Records and Blackwell Family Papers so we can bring these transcriptions back to loc.gov? Learn more about review and how to get started in the By the People instructions.

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