This post is by Victoria Van Hyning of the Library of Congress.
Describe what you do at the Library of Congress and the materials you work with as part of your day to day activities.
I joined the Library in July 2018 to work on the development of By the People, the Library’s text transcription crowdsourcing project. This was a new pilot project for the Library, and has since become a fully-fledged program.
As a Community Manager, I work with the By the People team, curators, and educators to identify interesting collections from our different curatorial divisions in the Library, such as Manuscript, Rare Book, Law, and the American Folklife Center. We work hard to present collections in ways that appeal to volunteers, while also enabling them to make high quality transcriptions as they learn and explore new things. I also split the communications duties with other Community Managers. This is one of the best parts of our work, I think. We get to be in contact with volunteers, including teachers and students who are using By the People in their classrooms and to fulfill service requirements.
Our team has designed and launched 15 collections-based “Campaigns” in just a year and a half. These feature the papers of Rosa Parks, letters sent to President Lincoln, the papers of suffrage leaders Mary Church Terrell and Susan B. Anthony, and the field notebooks of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, to name just a few. Volunteers have transcribed over 165,000 pages so far. Of these, over 16,000 transcriptions have been published back on loc.gov where they make the images of the original documents fully word-searchable, as well as accessible to people who use screen readers. You can keep track of our progress in publishing the transcriptions. Each transcription includes a note of attribution, crediting By the People volunteers. This demonstrates that the Library values and recognizes volunteers’ time and effort, and that their engagement has real-world outcomes.
Do you have a favorite item from the Library’s online collections? Why is it your favorite item?
I choose a letter from Mary Church Terrell, to the Board of Trustees for the School Board in Washington DC, entreating them to establish and observe Animal Day in the DC public school system. Terrell spent her life fighting for the rights of African Americans and women. She was a prominent suffragist, an anti-lynching campaigner, and she fought for and was arrested for her attempts to desegregate businesses in D.C. She was also instrumental in the establishment of Douglass Day in the Colored Schools of the District of Columbia. I’ve been blown away by the depth and breadth of Terrell’s advocacy, and her sheer eloquence in every genre: her support for the establishment of an Animal Day therefore wasn’t a surprise, but more of a reminder to me of the way she lived her values and put them into action. Her fight for equal protections, kindness, and humane treatment for others was absolute. This piece also reveals her wide reading in the sciences, social sciences, as well as the humanities. Here she references research from Scotland that found that people convicted of murder and other serious crimes often had a history of cruelty to animals—a finding that I believe is still true today.
Share a time when an item from the Library’s collections sparked your curiosity.
I am totally cheating for this question! The thing that sparks my curiosity is the “Free to Use Browser Extension,” a tool that plugs into the Chrome browser and shows you a photograph from the Library’s digitized image collection every time you open a new tab. A recent Junior Fellow created it. It’s free to download and easy to use.
This kind of tool is an example of how people can use Library of Congress collections to make cool new things. I encourage you to check out the Labs page and learn more about the experiments and tools created by data artists, astrophysicists, computer scientists, and hiphop artists who use LC data. And who knows, you could be next!
I go down a rabbit hole pretty much every day because of the Browser Extension tool. LC images are fascinating and I save the ones I love in a dedicated folder. Here are three I got the morning I wrote this blog post, as I opened new tabs to start my day:
I loved this because it reminded me of my dad, who used to be a percussionist for the New York State Theatre Opera.
Of course I must quibble with the lack of mention of Mr Anderson’s dining partner, a sweet looking Jack Russell terrier, who is sitting on its own chair at the breakfast table, with a napkin tied around its neck. I mean, really!
Tell us about a memorable interaction with a patron, K-12 teacher, or student.
Something I hear a lot in the course of my By the People work is that students no longer learn to write cursive, and are at risk of being cut off from the past. This is a real risk, and I don’t want to minimize that, but I have been so heartened by the many interactions I’ve had with students, some as young as 5 or 6, who have not learned cursive but are able to quickly start reading handwritten documents. I’ve hurt myself smiling too hard, watching dumbfounded parents look on while their child makes sense of the shapes and swirls almost entirely on their own. Most kids have a profound ability to recognize patterns and shapes, and that’s really what reading handwriting—also known as palaeography—is mostly about. Having a good and ever-growing vocabulary is important too. That lets you see more possibilities in the words on a page, particularly the further you go back in time.
Here are photos from two of my favorite in person transcribe-a-thon events. One was with local students at the Library of Congress Great Hall, on the day we launched By the People. We had the Gettysburg Address on display, heard a student orator perform the address, and then we dove into transcribing together as a group. It was so much fun. The second image is one I took at a Walt Whitman 200th birthday party in the Young Readers Center last May. Some of these kids were transcribing for 45 minutes of their own volition!
What’s one thing you’d like to tell Library users about the materials that you work with?
You can explore literally millions of images of documents through the Library’s website. These materials are here for you, wherever you are, so long as you can access the internet. Transcription and review on By the People, through other crowdsourcing sites, or even just by looking at a document in person as a group in the classroom or in a library, can take your exploration and learning to the next level. Your brain has to do different things when you transcribe—first, you’re almost switching off your internal monologue and focusing on someone else’s words and experience. You can go really deep into someone else’s universe when you transcribe—the pace of deciphering what they wrote might actually be similar to the pace at which they wrote the original document, carefully choosing the right words. Then when you’ve finished transcribing, or you’re serving as a reviewer (which you can do by making an account) you can take a step back and start to analyze what the person said. It’s a bit like solving a puzzle. At first you might not know what the whole thing will look like, but you find a few pieces that fit together here and there and you build around these until you have the whole.
Someday, all of the pages at the Library will be digitized—in part by amazing volunteers, and in part by new technologies that will read handwriting automatically (these are under development, but not complete). But there will always be value in transcribing documents and engaging your brain with this kind of work, no matter what the future holds for us technologically. Transcribing makes you slow down, and really internalize both the words and the physical object that has almost miraculously survived and outlived its maker, been preserved, cataloged, described, then digitized and encoded so that you can find it, anytime, anywhere.