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Volunteer Vignette: We’re all in this together!

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In today’s post, Sam Schireson interviews a By the People volunteer, Judith, 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 more accessible and discoverable on You can read our other Volunteer Vignette on the Signal here.

Sam: What motivates you to volunteer?

Judith: At 86, although slowing down and no longer able to multitask, my intelligence is apparently intact as is my ever present need to be useful. The opportunity to volunteer with By the People was like a godsend – something wonderful to keep me busy and being useful. I love the freedom to decide when I will work (any time, 24/7), for how long in which campaigns and documents. It’s all up to me.

Has the pandemic-imposed lockdown been a motivating factor?

Isolated at home for much more time than usual, I’m on [the] site every day learning American history I never knew, meeting famous people I’d only heard of and getting to know them as real people. It’s a college education for me and so much better than watching TV or working crossword puzzles and sudoku.

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

I am an experienced proofreader and because of my visual orientation, I am skilled at formatting. I didn’t take typing because I didn’t want to be a secretary, and I didn’t go to college. Trained initially in commercial art (there was only print media in those days) I worked in magazine publishing early on and spent most of my career in direct marketing and advertising, primarily as an administrator and eventually as a business writer.

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

Sepia-toned 1865 photograph of Clara Barton. She is seated at a desk, reading, smiling and resting her head chin on her left hand.
Claflin, C. R. B, photographer. Union nurse Clara Barton / Claflin’s Photographic Gallery, 229 Main Street, Worcester, Mass. United States, 1865.

Clara Barton was the founder and president of the American Red Cross – that’s all I knew about her before I began reading and transcribing her diaries, correspondence, speeches, books, and poetry, all exceptionally well-written. A woman of extraordinary intelligence, talent, courage, perseverance, and energy, she was born in Massachusetts in 1821. At 18, she began her career as a teacher in local schools and went on to establish the first free public school in Borden Town, New Jersey.

Soon after the Civil War began, she set up a system to collect and transport supplies to battlefields. By 1862, she was in the field herself caring for the wounded and soon after was setting up field hospitals. Her diaries in the field are compelling accounts of her experiences in battles at Bull Run, Antietam and Fredericksburg, among others.

And that was just the beginning. She was active in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 where she first learned of the International Red Cross. On returning home in 1873, she began almost 9 years of speaking, lobbying, and gaining support for the establishment of the American Red Cross in 1881.  At age 77 in 1898, she coordinated civilian relief and supported military hospitals during and after the Spanish American War in Cuba. Although she resigned from the American Red Cross in 1904 and died in 1912, Clara Barton, Angel in the Battlefield, lives on.

I was so taken with her, I purchased her book, “The Story of My Childhood,” published in 1907 and still in print. Drafts entitled “The Life of My Childhood” can be read on [the] site.

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

I’m pretty much a loner. Although I check discussions on History Hub almost every day, I’m an observer there, rarely if ever an interactor. On those few occasions when I use the contact form available on every transcribing page to ask a question, I always receive a quick and helpful response, thank you.

What advice do you have for first-time subscribers?

Take your time browsing and see what other volunteers are doing. Pick a Campaign and Subject File and explore the Completed, Needs Review, In Process, and Not Started documents.

The transcribing [website] is easy to use – much less complicated than any word-processing program I’ve used, but there’s more to it than just reading and typing. There are instructions “do’s and don’ts” to remember and follow if you want to do a good job; I keep a copy handy and still refer to it from time to time. Nobody’s perfect. And if for any reason I want to leave a document I haven’t finished transcribing, I just click on ‘Save’ and I go on. I can return and finish it later or leave it for another volunteer to do. We’re all in this together.

I find the review process very satisfying, especially when I find something missing or a formatting issue. And I can even go back to one of my own “Needs Review” documents and fix something I missed.

Anything else you’d like to add?

A note for seniors like me: my short-term memory has noticeably improved thanks to the focus and concentration I exercise every day transcribing and reviewing.

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