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Volunteer Vignette: Student and Teacher team up to transcribe Federal Theatre Project playbills

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In today’s post, By the People community manager Abby Shelton interviews two By the People volunteers, Tina and Alexandrawho paired up to transcribe Federal Theatre Project playbills! Tina was a student at the Emma Willard School in 2022 and already a By the People volunteer when she recruited her math teacher, Alexandra, to help transcribe a Yiddish playbill. They shared their experiences first in a blog post published by the Emma Willard School in April 2022. 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 other Volunteer Vignettes on the Signal here and here

Abby: Tina, tell us a little about your volunteer service for By the People. How did you first learn about it and what motivated you to participate?

Tina: After I was sent back home from my boarding school in my sophomore year [due to the Covid-19 pandemic], I could not continue volunteering at Joseph’s House and other local volunteer programs near my school and, thus, had a lot of down time at home. Knowing my passion for history and meticulous personality, a friend of mine introduced me to the By the People campaign as well as volunteer transcription program at the National Archives.

Both of the volunteer programs provided me with an opportunity to learn more about history. More importantly, I was able to choose when and where I do the volunteer work—a degree of flexibility I was looking for especially during the pandemic and as my coursework ramped up.

I began transcribing at the end of my sophomore year (spring ‘20). As someone who finds typing extremely satisfying, I would just let my fingers waltz on the keyboard as I transcribed one record after another. During the pandemic summer, I’d prepare myself a cup of coffee, put some music in the background, and sit at the dinner table and transcribe for hours.

Particular experiences, besides the Yiddish transcription, during my transcriber work excited me in particular. The first was when I came across a news report written 100 years ago about my all-girl high school and its founder, Emma Willard! I was so excited that I showed it to my advisor, who is also a proud alum of my high school.

The second highlight was working on the Spanish legal records from 17th and 18th century. After taking two years of Spanish and practicing modern Spanish everyday on Duolingo, I still scratched my head at the unfamiliar language usage I saw, such as the tendency to write the letter “h” in words like “hacer” more like an “f.” I took pleasure in finding the modification the language has went through and was exchanging emails with my Spanish teachers to make sure I transcribed the records correctly. Through transcribing the Spanish legal records, I unraveled stories buried in the stream of time—from the villagers of Encinacorba illegally felling trees to church officials misappropriating funds!

Tina reached out to a favorite teacher at her school to help transcribe a Yiddish playbill for the Federal Theatre Project. Tina, what made you think to reach out to your teacher for help? And Alexandra, what did you think when Tina reached out for your assistance?

Tina: After having Ms. Schmidt for math for three years, I came to see her as a caring friend I respect: in between asking about math questions, we’d talk just about everything, from how my dog is doing at home to politics in the Middle East. I knew Ms. Schmidt’s mastery in Hebrew, since she tutored one of my classmates and is active in Dor va Dor, the Jewish student organization at my high school.

I remember the program in Yiddish was one of the only records yet to be transcribed in the campaign I was working on. As someone who really hoped to finish what I’ve invested my time to, it was second instinct for me to ask Ms. Schmidt if she knew Yiddish and would like to work on the transcription when she was walking up a flight of stairs!

Alexandra: Initially, I was mostly floored that Yiddish was coming sailing out of the blue–I’m a very mathematical person and that’s probably how I am generally known around our high school campus.  Students here have so many interests, and are so creative, that I would have said that nothing surprises me.  But how delightful to be wrong!  I had very little awareness about the transcription of archival documents–I suppose if I had considered it, I would have thought it was necessary but perhaps a chore. Tina really opened my eyes as to why this was such engaging work, which definitely hints at the possibility of mental time-travel.  I’m a pretty curious person and take somewhat for granted that lots of information is available online, but I’d never thought much about how older stuff–which is often very good stuff–gets there.  The process is fun, and math teachers tend to be people who value precision and accuracy and doing something well that can be reused.  There’s something quite satisfying about that.

Green and white cover sheet for "The Tailor Becomes A Shop Keeper" by David Pinski, performed at the 49th St. Theatre.
The Tailor Becomes a Shop Keeper” playbill for play written by David Pinski.

Alexandra, tell us a little about the playbill you helped work on for the Federal Theatre Project. What did you learn about its history and context?

Alexandra: As noted, I ran to the internet to learn more, and I do feel so lucky that this play turned out to have such an interesting history, as noted in Joel Schechter’s Messiahs of 1933: How Yiddish Theater Survived Adversity Through Satire.  I know a little bit about the Yiddish theater, and had read one of Davis Pinski’s earlier plays (“King David and His Wives“, from 1923) years ago, but I was completely unfamiliar with “The Tailor Becomes a Storekeeper“, whose playbill I was transcribing.   I now realize that this later play really reflected both the playwright’s and the Federal Theatre Project‘s goals to create and produce plays that were relevant and modern. (“King David” is certainly modern in its frank treatment of relationships, but obviously very traditional in its historical setting.) One thing that strikes me as very interesting is that the FTP was a government project designed to both elevate the arts and the spirit during the Great Depression as well as to provide practical employment.  At the same time, “The Tailor” reflects the conflicting attitudes about the rise of union labor.  The content of the play was contemporary, but the bigger concept of the Federal Theatre Project was too.

I am literate in Yiddish, but I definitely go “line by line”–I can’t look at a page of Yiddish and instantly read everything without even trying, the way I can in English.  But in reading a playbill, which is very much a line-by-line sort of thing, this was probably less of a drawback.  At the same time, the Yiddish on the program was so Americanized that things often caught me off guard, in an entertaining way.  Entertaining surprises emerged all the time.  “What the heck is this word, ‘raketir’–OH, it’s a direct transliteration of the word ‘racketeer’!”  Or, ‘holdapnik’, what’s that?  OH, it’s the American word ‘holdup’, appended to the common Slavic-derived Yiddish suffix  ‘-nik’ to indicate a ‘holdup guy’, just the same way we use the Yiddish-derived terms ‘beatnik’, ‘neatnik’ or ‘no-goodnik’ in English.”  There were lots of little gems like that, which also spoke to the assimilation process these American Yiddish speakers were experiencing.

I suspect there’s a lot of this discovery process in transcribing in general, but since I had to go through the foreign-language text more carefully, the fun surprises tended to get revealed one at a time rather than all at once.  That was an unexpected pleasure.

What were your takeaways from the experience of transcribing historical documents?

Tina:  Volunteer in what you’re passionate about! The By the People program combined two of my favorite things: history and typing! When working with the primary records, I was able to contextualize the history I’ve learned and relate to the people, outlooks, and ideals from the past.

Reach out to the staff when you have a question. Even though the work is done virtually, the staff at the LOC is always willing to help you navigate what you’re working on!

Alexandra: It really is like time travel.  I want to stress, because it wasn’t obvious to me initially, that this is really absorbing, fun work.  It also has the nice quality that you can do a bit, set it aside if you need to, and continue when you’re ready to jump back into it.  There is certainly a pull to start Googling lots of stuff along the way to find out more about the context of what you’re looking at, but honestly, that isn’t a bad thing.  It makes you a more knowledgeable person, and at the same time, what you are doing may be of use to someone else on the Internet, down the road.  And that’s a good feeling too.

Any advice for first-time or new transcribers?

Tina: I started learning how to transcribe properly through the “How to Transcribe” page of the website. I found the instruction extremely informative, but I made sure to contextualize how to apply them in practice by simply looking at finished and reviewed transcriptions. Once I got a sense of how to transcribe it, it was time to dig in!

I started with campaigns I was interested in, like the NAWSA records, so I was motivated every day to transcribe them. Moreover, I would suggest start transcribing with printed records first, since the formatting and spelling would be easier. Once you become more comfortable, dig into the written records, which often give me interesting historical insights.

Alexandra: For me, one challenge was in working with a language that reads right to left, and trying to get the alignment and spacing of the transcribed document to match the original as closely as possible.  There are some bobbles and glitches that were a little annoying because the transcription template is clearly not really intended for serious word-processing in a non-Roman alphabet, right-to-left-reading language.  But I mostly figured it out, and it was kind of fun to solve those problems, too.

More generally: take your time.  Let yourself get into it.  Especially as a volunteer, you are doing this for the benefit of others, so don’t rush.  You’ll be more accurate, you’ll allow yourself the time to do a little side research if you’re so moved, and you’ll be better able to enjoy the sense of time travel.

Are you a volunteer for By the People? Let us know what you think in a comment below or reach out to us via email at [email protected].

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