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Volunteer Vignette: It’s fun to figure out the puzzle!

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In today’s post, Abby Shelton interviews a By the People volunteer, Maya, 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 most recent Volunteer Vignette on the Signal here.

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

Maya: I like to help people, and By the People allows me to do that at any time as much as I want to. Historians or just people looking to discover history in a direct way can find things much easier through transcriptions rather than general descriptions of documents, and it makes them easier to access for translators or people with vision problems. The lack of pressure or people to compare myself to means I get to focus on the documents I want to help with.

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

I’m a computer nerd so I use word processors like Google Docs to check for errors that I might have otherwise missed, as well as finding and replacing certain errors that get repeated. I also like to mess around with Optical Character Recognition software to get a start on some printed text rather than having to type everything out by hand, but I mostly review other people’s work.

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

Personal stories like letters between the early suffragettes mean a lot to me, these were real women with normal human concerns like paying rent and staying healthy.  Also seeing the real words of Clara Barton in her writings show how the worldwide group started as a woman trying to make a difference after a disaster rather than the simplified and sanitized version of history that fits in a single paragraph.

91 Danville. May 17, 1877 Dr. Louis Appia Member Societe International of the Red Cross of Seneca- My Esteemed and dear friend If years have past since any work from my pen told you of my existence, and if a previous letter from you has lain many months unanswered, it has not [meant] been the fault of my memory- nor the loss of friendship, nor interest in you nor the glorious and holy work which enperres and fills your noble life. It has been simply that ill[ness], weak[ness], worn and suffering. I have been lost to the work of the world, and to the friends I honored and loved Four long years have found and held me powerless to shelter blow on the great anvil of [the world] humanity, or labor one day in its vineyards and for the most part too weak even to hear of these who did- But the strong brothers and sisters have toiled bravely on, while I waited. the great wheels have slowly turned, until they have ceased to crush me so low, and grind me, so small, and once more I began under Gods Providence to reach out my hands into the passing atmospheres of life and feel the breezes blow over [these?] seared and fevered palms- Once more I dare turn my eyes toward the later fields-and [behold] His faithful workers- in my [light] land light with its western sun beam aglow with beauty & abundance in plenty they saw a gleaming peaceful valleys- But beyond the eastern waves, in that dear dear land that a four years life taught me to love so well, I see again the flash of the beyond- the marching armies trample down the honests. The terror stricken fly for rescue and the wounded cry for help - Again the Red Cross like the bow of promise rises over the scene - again the shout from its inspired origination rings out amid the din of arms, and its clear brave lines 2 92 reach me even here in my quiet chambers, and my heart with all its deep old memories stirred to their depths goes out in reponse, it lets me sieze my pen and say to you, that what there is of me still is ready for my work-that like the old [?] horse that has rested long in quiet pastures, I recognize the bugle note that calls me to my place, and though I may not do what I once could I am come to offer what I may. Once I would have taken the next steamer, and in two weeks stood beside you, asking where to go, and what to do, But that is not for me [at present] now, my brain and heart must do what my hands cannot. My plans are made, and such as they are I send them to you for acceptance, and cooperation. First, I cannot quite rid myself of the longing hope that the terrible [rein?] of war before you will vanish before its full realization, but if not, and the nations are drawn into its vortex God only knows the end. I cannot forsee it but I can foresee that my country will open its heart and its hand in aid as soon as [story?] of want and suffering shall reach it, this never fails, the American nature is free and impulsive, its sympathies are quick and responsive and has neither power nor desire to withhold ought from the distressed, but ready as America will be, she is far away from the same, can understand but [?] the steps necessary to the proper gathering, sending, and bestowal of her gifts, and without some definite, and well arrayed organization however large and generous the donations will fail of accomplishing any real or perceptible good, as she has always failed before in all [such efforts] similar efforts, at foreign aids
Clara Barton wrote to Louis Appia, of the International Red Cross, about her desire to form an American version of the organization. Clara Barton to Louis Appia, May 7, 1877, Clara Barton Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress. Source.
What advice do you have for new or first-time transcribers?

Keep the how-to page close at hand, and know that every contribution helps even if it’s just marking that a document isn’t complete or adding a few words to the transcription of a hand-written letter.  Take breaks, and if the writing is particularly difficult to decipher try asking friends, it’s kind of fun to figure out the puzzle sometimes of what the author actually wrote decades or hundreds of years ago.

Free space! What else would you like to add?
I like that this project is committed to sharing history in the form of real objects rather than interpretations and summaries. Direct knowledge of what was written and printed can only help clarify what happened in the long run.

It’s also really interesting to see parallels directly between things such as anti-suffrage literature and messages occurring in modern politics. Some things just don’t change it seems.


  1. I enjoy trying to decipher older handwriting and script. If really stuck, will sometimes Google the name or topic and when able to figure out a word/name find it very rewarding.

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