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Using Crowdsourced Transcriptions: An Interview with Allison Johnson

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By the People volunteers have helped the Library of Congress return over 120,000 transcriptions back to, making the Library’s collections more discoverable and accessible for all. To celebrate the impact our virtual volunteers have on the Library and its patrons, we are highlighting some of the ways that scholars, educators, and community members have used transcriptions in their work. In this post, By the People’s Abby Shelton interviews Allison Johnson, Assistant Professor of English at San Jose State University. 

Allison Johnson, The Left-Armed Corps: Writings by Amputee Civil War Veterans (Louisiana State University Press, 2022).

Abby: Tell us a little about your research and teaching at San Jose State University. What are some of your more recent projects?

Allison: I joined SJSU in 2018. I regularly teach a literary survey of British and American literature, 1680-1860, as well as classes on ethnic American literature. My research into nineteenth-century American print culture seeks to expand our understanding of what texts and voices matter—especially the historically silenced or overlooked voices of people of color, women, and people with disabilities. I focus particularly on newspapers and periodicals and often include print artifacts in the classes I teach. My recent class on 19th-century American literature included an activity that required students to use the LOC’s Chronicling of America website to track down the authors we read in newspapers published prior to 1900. I enjoy giving students opportunities to interact with digital archives.

I published my first book, The Scars We Carve: Bodies and Wounds in Civil War Print Culture, in 2019 with LSU Press. The Left-Armed Corps: Writings by Amputee Civil War Veterans arose out of my discussion of Bourne’s penmanship contests in The Scars We Carve. I also co-edited an anthology of early American religious writings, Religion and Its Reformation in America, Beginnings to 1730, which Baylor University Press published in 2020. More recently, I wrote an essay on the twinned symbols of campfires and firesides in Civil War print culture (forthcoming in the Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the American Civil War and Reconstruction).

How did you first hear about By the People and the transcriptions for the Bourne papers?

A [former] representative from the LOC (Victoria Van Hyning) contacted me after noticing my discussion of Bourne’s contests in one of the chapters of The Scars We Carve and informed me about By the People. She asked if I would be interested in hosting a transcribe-a-thon.

How did you use those transcriptions in your research and writing? And how do you think transcriptions benefit researchers?

I used the transcriptions as a starting point for my edited collection of writings, The Left-Armed Corps. I had already made some of my own transcriptions (based on photos I took with my phone in the LOC reading room) for The Scars We Carve but went through all of the newly digitized images and found transcriptions for the contest entries I wanted to include in my edited collection. I edited the transcripts, fixed words that had been incorrectly transcribed or missed, and checked them against images of the original documents. Those edited transcriptions became the basis for the writings included in my book.

Transcriptions are beneficial in multiple ways—they make accessible and searchable texts that were formerly only available to people with reading privileges at the LOC Manuscript Division who could afford a trip to DC. I fortunately had experience in reading old manuscripts and penmanship, but transcriptions are useful for people who have a harder time deciphering faded texts. For my project, the transcriptions saved me time in not having to start from whole cloth and instead providing a basis for the annotated and footnoted contest entries I included in The Left-Armed Corps.

What were some of the most interesting or meaningful items you looked at the Bourne collection?

When I first encountered the papers in person, I was amazed to find myself holding a letter written and signed by William Tecumseh Sherman to one of the contestants. Even though people viewing the papers online won’t have the same tactile experience, they’ll be able to look at extremely historically significant texts, zoom in and out, and have a first-person interaction. All of the papers and the veterans who created them are important to me and I’ve spent a lot of time perusing the pages, but I’ll mention one veteran in particular. Alfred D. Whitehouse created the most beautiful (in my opinion) entry, which includes a highly ornamental title page featuring a photograph of himself and a tribute to the Left-Armed Corps. I wasn’t surprised to learn that Whitehouse had been a sign painter prior to enlistment and continued his work with his left hand after the war.

Alfred D. Whitehouse’s ornate title page
Alfred D. Whitehouse’s ornate title page. Source on

We’ve heard you held a transcribe-a-thon for your students! Can you tell us more about that experience?

As I said, Victoria contacted me and asked if I would be interested in hosting one. I thought it was a great idea, especially since I love giving students opportunities to have hands-on research and archival experiences. I reserved a large classroom and advertised the event to SJSU students and faculty, primarily in the English department. Around 20 participants showed up. Few (if any) of the attendants had experience with looking at archival documents and/or transcribing. However, the instruction sheet provided by the LOC helped a lot and I was on hand to assist students with unfamiliar words. The attendees enjoyed themselves and some said they’d continue to volunteer for other By the People projects. It was a lot of fun and I hope to do it again once we’re fully back in-person.

What’s next? What kinds of research projects are you working on now?

I’m hoping to work on a second volume of The Left-Armed Corps since I barely scratched the surface of what the Bourne papers offer. While I wait to see how the book does and if there’s interest in a second volume, I plan on working on a few essays also focused on print culture. One is in part inspired by a veteran who competed in Bourne’s contests. James Mann returned home to New York after being wounded and spending time in a Confederate prison to find that his wife had left for Canada after receiving word of Mann’s death. Fortunately, he reunited with his wife. His story reminded me of others I had come across in my research—of soldiers who miraculously returned from the dead.

The first page of James Mann’s entry into the Left-hand penmanship contest.
The first page of James Mann’s entry into the Left-hand penmanship contest. Source on

I’m interested in looking at the phenomenon in both fictional pieces and wartime reporting and thinking about how such stories provided hope for those at home while also conceptualizing how men returned home different than they left (whether with visible or invisible wounds). Digitized newspapers, on the Chronicling of America website and elsewhere, will be integral to my research process.

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