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Volunteer Vignette: It’s just so much fun!

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In today’s post, I interview a By the People volunteer, Maddie, 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 Vignettes on the Signal here and here.

Carlyn: What motivates you to volunteer on the crowdsourced transcription program, By the People?

Maddie: I like to read personal stories that come from the past, and I love puzzles, so transcribing the personal remembrances and letters you post satisfies both interests. I suppose it started out as a way to be helpful to the literary community but now that I’ve been working with the Hockley journals for so long, the transcribing has taken on a more personal shade as I’ve come to enjoy his insights and reflections on the subjects that interest him. Usually I transcribe in the evenings, and somehow the fact that his meetings with the spirits occurred in the evenings resonates with me. It’s just so much fun!

The Crystal Vol IV 2nd Jan 1853 to 28th June 1853 A Record of Visions and Conferences with the In-dwellers of the SPIRIT WORLD LC Croydon Fred Hockley
Hockley, Frederick, and Harry Houdini Collection. The Crystal: A Record of Visions and Conferences With the In-Dwellers of the Spirit World. 1853. Manuscript/Mixed Material. 

Has the pandemic played a role in your decision to volunteer as a transcriber?

Not really. I’m retired so my time is my own.

Do you have any special skills or interests that relate to transcribing documents?

For the Hockley journals, I think my age matters. I grew up with script and I remember noticing that my grandmother used an older form of script that was not taught in my elementary school. The best example of this is the uncrossed “t” at the end of a word. There’s sort of a little flourish at the end of the word. So as an adult, I purposely adopted that “t” form in my own writing as a way to honor her memory.

Professionally, I worked as a speech-language pathologist, so my knowledge of lexicon and syntax helps with the thorny words and phrases. Growing up as a Catholic also helps. So many of Hockley’s references remind me of the vocabulary and phrasing of the Catholic doctrines I absorbed as a child. It has been an interesting journey to revisit those old liturgies.

What have been some of the most compelling or interesting documents you’ve come across? Why?

I don’t remember the campaign, but I do remember transcribing a letter written by a society lady interested in theater in the early 1860s. She made direct reference to knowing the Booth family – Edwin and John Wilkes – before the assassination. It was just a fleeting reference to folks she knew, passing on information to her friend, but it struck me how ordinary, everyday things can change profoundly in an instant.

Have you had any impactful interactions with other By the People volunteers?

Yes! I had so many questions about the curious references and symbols in the Hockley journals, I asked the community for clarification. And one person who was very familiar with Hockley from other journals, Alan T[…], stepped up to answer the questions. I had a better understanding of Hockley after reading his responses, and then I became a little more obsessed with the project.

What advice do you have for new or first-time transcribers?

First, before jumping into your first transcription, read a few completed and approved transcriptions of the project. That gives one a sense of what folks have done before and helps answer questions about format. Second, read the instructions on transcribing. This seems so obvious, but it seems to be a step people miss.

Free space! What else would you like to add?

Well, I have one suggestion. It would be great if you could switch out of the sans serif font you folks use. In that font, the only way to tell the difference between a lowercase l, a 1, and a capital I is through context. The serif fonts are easier to read though not as modern.

And then I suppose I’d just like to virtually hug the people who had the great idea of opening up these documents to crowd-sourced transcription.

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