Volunteer Vignette: Transcribe without fear, don’t be intimidated!

In today’s post, Sam Schireson interviews a By the People volunteer who has gone above and beyond! By the People is a crowdsourced transcription program launched in 2018 at the Library of Congress. Volunteer-created transcriptions are used to make digitized collections searchable and discoverable on loc.gov.


In this interview we hear from Henry in Virginia who has been transcribing on an ongoing basis for the last 22 months. Henry has been chosen as our first volunteer profile because he is one of our most prolific and engaged contributors. Since late 2018, he has transcribed or reviewed an impressive 15,000 pages from multiple campaigns. Henry’s engagement extends beyond By the People, where he uses his experience transcribing to help and welcome others on HistoryHub (the CROWD space in History Hub is a dedicated By the People discussion forum). The Library was also lucky enough to have him volunteer in person during last year’s National Book Festival!

Sam: What motivates you to volunteer? 

Henry: I was looking for a volunteer activity and came across By the People. I have an interest in history and thought it would be interesting, especially the Lincoln section. However, I soon found that everybody was doing Lincoln so I looked for another area and came across Mary Church Terrell. It has been a great experience learning about the struggle for Equal and Civil Rights from the beginning and reading and transcribing work from someone who knew Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. I have since completed whatever documents were available for me to work on and am now working on Anna Dickinson’s documents.

How has your experience volunteering changed since the beginning of the pandemic?   

For me, the experience has not changed that much since the beginning of the pandemic. On social media, I would alert others to this project and found that they had been looking for something like this to do. Coronavirus has certainly changed my life as it has for others. I have found since we have been social distancing since March that this is a great activity to keep me busy and preserve my sanity. Whenever I am lacking for something to do, I will work on a few pages.

Prior to becoming a volunteer, what relevant skills did you have?     

None. Frankly, I am a terrible typist. I had never done anything like this before. When I started I had a lot of trouble reading Mary Church Terrell’s handwriting and it took a few weeks before I began to get the nuances of her script. I prefer doing handwritten to typewritten pages but others prefer the typewritten. It makes no difference because whatever you don’t feel like doing, someone else will do. Also, there are many levels to completing a page so you are not solely responsible for accuracy. Teamwork. That’s the main thing. This is a team effort and the goal is to get these documents available for future historians and researchers so I feel I am providing a valuable service.

What has been the most engaging material you have transcribed, and why?

As I mentioned before, I have worked mostly on Mary Church Terrell’s documents. Among those, the most interesting parts that stood out were: at one of the early conventions in the formation of the National Association of Colored Women, Harriet Tubman was there as a participating member. I discovered that Mrs. Terrell was the last person to see Frederick Douglass alive. She declined a lunch invitation by him after meeting him on the street and he died that afternoon. She told a story about how on a streetcar in 1908, someone called her the “N” word and she actually got in their face and almost got into a fight. Later, when she was almost 90, it was her fight to desegregate the restaurants in Washington D.C. and the Supreme Court decision that followed that finally led to its coming to fruition. I learned so much about prejudice and the fight for civil rights. She was a remarkable woman.

How has interacting with By the People team members and fellow volunteers impacted you?

Team members have been great. Anytime I have a problem or a question, I can post a question On History Hub and they answer it quickly. Other volunteers have been great too. I had come across documents in French and German and by posting the pages, other volunteers stepped up and completed those pages. One of the volunteers and I teamed up to work on Letters to Lincoln. It was a section she was working in and as she transcribed she would send me pages to review. We completed around 4,000 pages together. We have become friendly and intend to meet after the pandemic ends.

What advice do you have for first-time transcribers?

Don’t be intimidated. When you come across a blank page, it says, “Go ahead. Start typing. You got this!” It is true. It is simply a matter of getting started. As with anything new there is a learning curve but the site is pretty intuitive. If you get stuck or decide you do not want to work on a particular page, save what you have done and move on. I tend to be stubborn so I didn’t do that. I worked on a page until I was satisfied. Whichever method you choose, someone else will review your work and edit it before it gets marked as complete. Along those lines, do not be embarrassed at what you can’t do. Whatever you can do will go a long way to helping the Library of Congress get these documents ready for the public.

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