For Procrastinators and Explorers

Day 248

"He was strapped on his back to a contour couch within the close confines of his Mercury spacecraft. The hatch was closed and bolted. Beneath the craft was the huge lifting rocket." It sounds like the opening lines of a science fiction story, perhaps the buildup to a first contact with aliens, or the prelude to a survival thriller after something in the rocket went wrong. In fact, it's the first lines that I transcribed of NASA's report on the first US person in orbit, from page 2 of the document on the spacecraft's safety system. Of this four-page document, the first and fourth page had already been transcribed when I got there. That's one of the many little quirks of doing volunteer document transcribing for the National Archives Citizen Archivist project, a new-to-me pastime that can be done all online, using previously uploaded scans of documents in the National Archives Catalog.

The beginning of an enrollment form for an Indian School
Why transcribe? In addition to the fact that electronic versions of text make them accessible to blind or low-vision people using screen reader software, transcribed text is searchable text. The difference between being able to search subject headings or tags on documents and being able to keyword search them is huge for history research, especially when you're looking for something obscure that the cataloger didn't expect. Some organizations make their digitized documents searchable through OCR (optical character recognition) software, and use volunteer time to proofread and edit the mistakes the software makes. I'm not sure why the National Archives doesn't do that for the documents it would work on, but it doesn't work on handwritten documents or those with a combination of print and handwriting.

Cover page of the letter
about Se-quo-yah
Many documents that need transcription are fascinating, but many are boring, such as numerous copies of the same 1910's enrollment form for the Vermillion Lake Indian School with different students' information. In the aggregate these documents could give very interesting data to researchers who know what to look for, but one by one they're repetitive. Plus, transcribing is by nature more tedious than just reading the same documents. What I like about the boring parts is that I still feel productive, like I'm contributing to something -- which, of course, I am. I've long been a fan of productive procrastination, avoiding one project (laundry?) but still feeling good because I am getting something done, and transcription is perfect for that.

The real reason I've come to enjoy volunteer transcribing is that those repetitive-but-productive stretches are punctuated by moments of the pure delight of discovery. When I come across something really interesting I didn't expect to find, even though I wasn't looking for it and I know that other people have discovered it before me (not least, the person who scanned it!), those moments are gems. I had one such moment transcribing an 1845 letter between U.S. government officials conveying the news of the death of Se-quo-yah or George Guess, the inventor of the Cherokee Alphabet. I turned the page, and the next page was in Cherokee, which I hadn't expected at all. The letter included a statement from Oo-no-leh, who spoke with Se-quo-yah's family, in Cherokee and translated into English. 

Excerpt from the letter, written in the Cherokee alphabet

I even got to transcribe some of the meeting minutes of the House Committee on Un-American Activities -- I wasn't transcribing the hearings themselves, but, for example, a record of the decision to allow HUAC hearings to be televised. It's a cliche to say that something "brings history to life," but that's really the value of this kind of thing for me. I've known about the anti-communist hearings my whole life, but because they happened before I was born, they've always felt distant, and these minutes made them feel less so.

Excerpt from meeting minutes of the HUAC

The main drawback of Citizen Archivist volunteering is that the website design and user experience  can be a bit frustrating, but not enough to turn me off from participating. If there's a way to view whether all pages of a document have been transcribed while you're looking at a list of documents, I haven't found it yet. Once you have a particular document open, a tag icon appears on the pages that have been worked on, but often I'll open four or five documents before I find one with work to do.  I imagine that the back-end work to get a crowdsourcing effort like this to function smoothly is considerable, and I look forward to seeing whether the site improves over time, assuming the project has continued support. If you're a procrastinator or an armchair explorer, I definitely recommend checking it out -- they have featured topics which change periodically, often on historical topics likely to be on the public's mind, or you can seek out areas that interest you. They also have tagging projects and other ways to be involved if you decide you don't like transcribing, but I'd encourage you to give it a shot.