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Staff transcriber spotlight: Enjoy being curious!

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 In today’s post, Abby Shelton interviews a By the People contributor and recently retired Library of Congress staff member, Jan Lancaster, who has gone above and beyond! Jan transcribed and reviewed thousands of Clara Barton pages early in the pandemic as part of a telework project. In this post we asked Jan to reflect on her contributions to By the People and her long career at the Library. We wish her all the best in retirement!  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 

Abby:  What did you do at the Library before you retired?

Jan: In the few years before I retired (before my two-years’ work on Clara Barton), I worked on the Fragment Project with Beatriz Haspo in the Collections Management Division – a project on which I had longed to work for 20 years. Unusually, in my 28 years at the Library, I had the opportunity to work in many divisions – Congressional Research Service, Manuscript, Rare Book, Conservation, Music, African and Middle East Division, and the Collections Management Division.

After my first temporary positions in CRS, I was engaged for a 5-year position in American Memory and, after that, a permanent position in the Digital Scan Center. With the advent of American Memory, and later the Digital Scan Center, the goal was to present the Library collections online in Web sites to make materials more accessible to researchers. As an art historian, I realized that Web sites are essentially online exhibitions where one views materials – photography, art, letters, maps, artifacts – in a virtual setting rather than in a physical space such as a museum. Thus, my work on many diverse projects was curatorial in nature. I measured the materials, collated books, took notes on the items, did a preliminary assessment of their physical condition, entered information into databases, arranged to have items scanned, sometimes handling them myself, worked with the Web designer on the layout of the site, and I often researched and wrote about the materials which were presented on the final Web site.

What are some of your standout projects from your time at the Library? 

The Dayton C. Miller Iconography Collection, a collection of prints depicting wind instruments from Dürer to 20th century magazine covers, a collection that represents only one facet of Miller’s vast collection of flutes and music for wind instruments, in the care of Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, the Curator of Musical Instruments in the Music Division; Coptic Music with Carolyn Ramzy; Danny Kaye with Daniel Walshaw; Persian Manuscripts with Hirad Dinavari; and the Fragment Project with Beatriz Haspo.

How did you first get involved in By the People? And what keeps you motivated to contribute?

I shall always be grateful to the Librarian, Dr. Carla Hayden, for permitting Library personnel to transcribe letters from the Library’s collections in By the People while teleworking from home during the pandemic since March 2020. I had never teleworked before the pandemic but it was the perfect project on which to work from home. Once I began reading the letters of Clara Barton, I simply became immersed in her 19th-century world – especially the United States before and after the Civil War and Europe during the Franco-Prussian War.

Undated black and white photograph of Clara Barton, in dark long-sleeved dress.
Undated photograph of Clara Barton. Source on

You have done some incredible research on Clara Barton and her circle of friends and acquaintances. What got you interested in Barton? 

I am simply curious and have always enjoyed doing research. Having been born in Washington and even having visited Glen Echo as a child, I knew of Clara Barton but I did not know anything about her life except that she was the founder of the Red Cross. So, I was intrigued to know more about her.

Can you tell us about some of the most compelling or interesting documents in the Barton campaign? 

Clara Barton corresponded with hundreds if not thousands of people. She seemed to know everyone and everyone knew her! There were several friends who were instrumental to her and her work with the Red Cross. In fact, I don’t think Clara could have accomplished as much as she did without their support and loyalty. The letters of Joseph Sheldon and his wife Abby, lifelong friends of Clara, were very important as were the letters of John Hitz, the Swiss Consul General. Joseph Sheldon, a lawyer and graduate of Yale, offered legal advice gratis and reviewed all the documents for the Red Cross, while multilingual John Hitz, translated many of the Red Cross documents of European signatories to the Geneva Treaty – Switzerland, The Netherlands, France – to present as examples for Clara to use as the basis for the Red Cross in the United States, the difference being, that the United States would offer aid to those in need not only in times of war but also during natural disasters caused by earthquakes, floods or fire. Fidelia Taylor, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph E. Holmes, was also a loyal and true friend to Clara.

However, the most important letters – letters that I discovered by accident very late in my work on the Clara Barton Papers – were those of Leonora B. Halsted, the sister-in-law of John W. Noble, Secretary of the Interior under President Benjamin Harrison. Leonora, from a well-to-do family who had spent her childhood in Europe, was a writer of novels who also published numerous articles in many of the St. Louis newspapers. Leonora was a dynamo, many years younger than Clara when they met and, together with John Noble and their friends in social and political circles, smoothed the way for legislation to be passed and through articles that Leonora wrote, to apprise the public about the beneficial work of the Red Cross. As dear friends Leonora and John W. Noble supported Clara at some of her lowest moments especially when she was forced to step down as President of the Red Cross in 1904. Clara told Leonora late in life that Leonora was one of her “two precious jewels” the other being Louise, the Grand Duchess of Baden who Clara met during the Franco-Prussian War.

Leonora Halsted’s transcript of Clara Barton’s autobiographical recollections, 1890.
Leonora Halsted’s transcript of Clara Barton’s autobiographical recollections, 1890. Source on 

Two of the most important documents I discovered in the Clara Barton Papers were found among the letters of Leonora B. Halsted. One was Leonora’s transcription of Clara’s recollections of her life before and during the Civil War which Clara recounted one evening in an interview during dinner at the home of John W. Noble at 1311 K Street on July 29, 1890. Clara described her early years of teaching, then continuing her own education at the Clinton Liberal Institute in Oneida County, New York, her first years in Washington working at the Patent Office and “devouring books at the Congressional Library” when she lived on East Capitol Street, how she began her work during the Civil War delivering supplies to the front lines and her vivid description of the battle at Antietam. There is a similar document of Clara’s description of the battle of Antietam, missing its first page, which Leonora apparently published as an article, but I never discovered the newspaper or journal in which it appeared.

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

Letters reveal the innermost thoughts of individuals. One never knows where the story will lead, or what persons or events may enter the picture. How the writer responds to thoughtful gestures or hurtful behavior or tackles challenges in life offers insights to his or her ethos and moral compass. What one learns by reading these letters enriches one’s knowledge of that person and also adds another dimension to the reader’s understanding of historic events in a way that is not presented in textbook histories.

Enjoy being curious. Research the persons and events mentioned in the letters. Puzzled about a word that you cannot decipher? Don’t worry. The same word may appear more legibly a few letters away. Write down your best guess and another transcriber may be able to read it.

Share your thoughts and findings and questions with By the People staff who are always responsive and who will pass along your thoughts or queries to specialists in the Library who will sometimes write to you directly.

Each contributor brings his or her own gifts to the letters in By the People whether or not one has a deep background in history. Do you speak or read other languages? There are letters in German, French and Spanish and other languages that may need to be transcribed. Bring only your curiosity and you will be surprised and gratified by what you will learn by delving into the writings of these persons who have left a record of their lives for the generations who have come after them.

What are some of your takeaways from your career at the Library? And your time as a top-contributor to By the People

Not only is the Library a repository of magnificent collections but it has a staff of specialists and librarians who are multilingual who have a wealth of knowledge and expertise in a vast range of subjects and who also have a generosity of spirit in sharing their gifts. Over many years, I have been the fortunate recipient of such generosity of friends and colleagues at the Library who have been open-minded and have given me the latitude for intellectual inquiry and the freedom to research and write about subjects that interested me. Among those I wish to acknowledge are: Robert Newlen, Karen Lund, Michelle Krowl, Mary Jane Deeb, Cameron Penwell, Beatriz Haspo, Yasmeen Khan, and my long-time supervisor, Domenic Sergi.

As to my work on Clara Barton for By the People, I am very grateful for the support of Lauren Algee, Abby Shelton and Carlyn Osborn. I am not very adept at social media so I did not compare notes with other transcribers or submit my observations about Clara Barton to online discussion groups or to history forums. I simply worked my heart out – mostly in isolation at home – and I immersed myself in the 19th-century world of Clara Barton and her role in United States and European history.

Since I was working for the Library in an official capacity, I was concerned about documenting my hours and my work. I wrote short biographies of persons mentioned in the letters of Clara Barton and summarized my findings and totals of letters reviewed in reports to my supervisor every two weeks. I was stunned to discover just before I retired that I had been a “top contributor” to By the People. It was such a pleasant surprise, and the staff at By the People made me feel that my work was genuinely appreciated – such a lovely coda to my years of research at the Library of Congress.

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