Volunteer Vignette: The Youngstown State University Transcribing Club

In today’s post, Abby Shelton interviews By the People volunteer and Youngstown State University student Julie Centofanti who has gone above and beyond! Julie started a Transcribing Club at YSU in 2020 to help fellow students fulfill a service requirement, build community, and have fun. She was one of two students to win a 2022 Charles J. Ping Student Service Legacy Award from a state-based community service organization for her leadership. Julie describes how the club came to be, what it has meant for students at YSU, and offers suggestions for how you might start a similar program at your school or organization. We are so glad to be able to spotlight Julie’s efforts and grateful for her contributions to the Library of Congress!


Abby: How did you find out about the Library of Congress transcription program?

Julie: As a member of the Youngstown State University Honors College, we are required to earn sixty hours of volunteerism per year. Serving the community can be challenging for any college student, between studying, work, extracurricular hobbies, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. My father was diagnosed with a non-hereditary kidney disease and is now immunocompromised. Therefore, our family must be extremely careful not to bring the lethal coronavirus home to my father. My challenge was to find alternate ways to volunteer during the ongoing pandemic. So, I did what any college student would do, research virtual volunteer opportunities on the internet! Through my travels, I found the [Library of Congress’ transcription program By the People]! I always loved learning about history and discovered that the Library of Congress is the perfect way to preserve history and earn volunteer hours!

Tell us about your club! How did it get started, what do your events and meetings look like, and what strategies have you found work best for transcribing as a group?

During the summer of 2020, I spoke with Professor Mollie Hartup regarding the service I had completed over the summer. After discussing the fascinating articles that I was working on, we discussed the possibility of hosting a virtual event for other honors students to transcribe historical documents. In August of 2020, we organized the first transcribe-a-thon on WebEx. Since then, we have hosted multiple transcribe-a-thons and now have bi-weekly 2-hour meetings for students to earn volunteer hours in a virtual environment.

We start each meeting with a transcription tutorial, in which we review the Library of Congress website, such as the available campaigns and documents to transcribe and review. After the tutorial, students log in to the Library of Congress, choose a campaign, and transcribe. During this transcribing session, students can ask questions by sharing their screens, and students in the WebEx session collaborate to determine the word or phrase that may be difficult to read. After our first transcribing session, which lasts about 50 minutes, we take a short 15-minute break and complete an icebreaker activity. During this time, students turn on their cameras to share their pets or discuss a favorite book or movie they recently enjoyed. We have students from diverse majors and cultures that join our meetings. After our icebreaker activity, we continue transcribing for the remainder of the meeting. At the end of the meeting, we discuss some interesting articles we transcribed, along with the number of pages we transcribed or reviewed. Students earn Transcribing Club prizes, such as pins, pens, and other gifts when they attend a certain number of meetings.

A strategy that we utilize is a Google Doc that is shared with each Transcribing Club member. When a student finishes a document, they copy and paste the link of the document that they finished into the Google Doc. If students do not enjoy typing or do not wish to type during the meeting, they can access the Google Doc and review the documents that our transcribers have already finished. This is an organized strategy to complete more documents and build a sense of community among transcribers.

The Transcribing Club would not have been successful without the guidance of Professor Mollie Hartup and the support of the Youngstown State University Sokolov Honors College.

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

I have enjoyed transcribing documents on multiple campaigns, such as the Theodore Roosevelt Letters, the Early Copyright Title Pages, and Organizing for Women’s Suffrage. There have been countless documents that I have found interesting!

The first project that I volunteered with was the Theodore Roosevelt [campaign]. I always enjoyed reading about the personal documents that Theodore Roosevelt received, either from family or friends. This article was particularly interesting because he discussed the condition of his troops and discussing promotions of exemplary officers.

Letter from James Wilson to Theodore Roosevelt, 1899,

Letter from James Wilson to Theodore Roosevelt, 1899. Source on loc.gov.

As a Biology student in the pre-medical track, I am also fascinated with healthcare from the past. There are many documents from the Early Copyright Title pages that discuss remedies for health problems. For example, this copyright title page includes a treatment plan for seasickness from 1856. It is interesting to see similarities and differences in health care from the 1800s to today!

Sea-Sickness: Its Cause, Nature, Symptoms, and Treatment, Derived from Experience and Strict Observations, by ML Nelken (1865),

Sea-Sickness: Its Cause, Nature, Symptoms, and Treatment, Derived from Experience and Strict Observations, by ML Nelken (1865). Source on loc.gov.

What advice do you have for new or first-time transcribers? And what advice do you have for students looking to organize their own transcribing club?

The advice that I would recommend for first-time transcribers is to treat each campaign or document with an open mind. Transcribing documents in cursive or illegible handwriting can be challenging, but each document has its own story. Therefore, I would recommend a short document that is easy to understand when starting your transcription journey. This will build confidence and a sense of accomplishment. If you cannot complete a page, save your work and move to the following document. Your time and dedication to the Library of Congress is greatly appreciated.

Suppose students are looking to organize a college transcribing club. In that case, I recommend reaching out to students through a university newsletter, online forum, promotional posters, or forming a group within your major. From there, create a transcription tutorial on paper or video, so students are not intimidated or nervous to begin transcribing. The Library of Congress includes insightful resources to help you form a transcription presentation. Students can also refer to the tutorial I utilize during my meetings, which can be found in the Honors in Practice publication.

From there, set up a meeting date that works for most students. In a university setting, your transcribing club can be virtual or in-person. Many students enjoy collaborating in person, so they have the opportunity to meet new students and help each other with difficult documents. We have held multiple meetings online and in-person, including some meetings that had students both online and in-person.

It is imperative to encourage the students as they first begin transcribing. To do this, ensure that the students choose a campaign they would like to learn about or something that relates to their major. Another way to encourage students is to set goals for them to attend meetings. For example, we have Transcribing Club Levels for students who attend meetings. For example, students who attend fifteen meetings earn the Bronze Award, students who attend twenty meetings earn the Silver Award, and students who attend thirty meetings earn the Gold Award. Students also earn small prizes for reaching a new milestone.

Free space! What would you like to share or add about your experience as a transcriber?

For the past two years, I have been fortunate to volunteer and preserve history with the Library of Congress. The Youngstown State University Sokolov Honors College is built on the five pillars of academic and social excellence. Although our club pertains to each pillar, The Transcribing Club exhibits the Service-Learning pillar of the Honors College.

An example of service-learning is the Youngstown State University and The University of Texas at Arlington Transcribe-a-Thon. At the National Collegiate Honors Council Conference in the Fall of 2021, YSU Honors College staff member Lexi Rager connected with honors faculty at the University of Texas at Arlington, who were interested in hosting a transcribing event. During winter break, I, along with Mollie Hartup, met with Ms. Emily Spaulding from UTA to plan the event. On February 5, fifty-six students collaborated online to transcribe 400 documents. Many of our student volunteers enjoyed transcribing these historical documents, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Early Copyright Pages. There were also students from UTA that were Theater majors, and they enjoyed transcribing historical Broadway programs! We welcomed students to build community during breakout sessions. We had five team leaders from YSU and five team leaders from UTA that led breakout sessions. Students talked about the differences between our universities, such as the differences in the weather. However, we found out that our universities had more in common than we realized! Overall, the experience was beneficial for students at YSU and UTA.

We hope to collaborate with students at UTA and other universities for future transcribe-a-thons! In the future, we are looking forward to collaborating with more universities to create a nationwide university transcribing club. If you are interested in collaborating with the YSU Transcribing Club, don’t hesitate to contact Julie Centofanti at [email protected].

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