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Write history for the Library of Congress’ crowdsourcing project

Transcribe historical documents for By the People

Library of Congress By the People

If you’ve got a fascination for history, then the Library of Congress has a job for you — well, it’s a non-paying job, but it’s worth a few minutes (or hours) of your time.

The library is asking anyone with a computer and an interest in historical documents to join a crowdsourcing project called By the People, in which volunteers will transcribe several thousand documents from the library’s vaults. According to the site, the purpose of the project is to “improve search, readability, and access to handwritten and typed documents for those who are not fully sighted or cannot read the handwriting of the original documents.”

Online-based crowdsourcing is not new; there have been academic projects such as SETI@home (a radio telescope experiment that has been ongoing since 1999), government projects such as the National Archives’ Citizen Archivist, and crowdsourced traffic reporting via apps like Waze.

By the People invites interested volunteers to transcribe digitized images of personal letters, diaries, receipts, speeches, and other documents from famous and not-so-famous people who were involved in a variety of historical movements, mostly from the 19th and early 20th centuries. Launched in the fall of 2018, By the People has organized its documents into various “campaigns” — such as the Civil War, the abolitionist movement, and the suffragist movement — in order to let you choose the subject matter you’re most interested in. You can do a transcription yourself, check someone else’s work, or just read.

By the People interface

The interface for the transcription process is well-designed. Documents are presented on the left half where you can magnify it and move it around in its space to provide the best view, which is especially useful for the cramped handwriting that’s often popular among 19th century writers. The blank area on the right is where you type in your transcription.

These documents offer a glimpse into the important issues of the time and the small details of day-to-day life. You could find yourself transcribing a typewritten page from Mary Church Terrell, 20th century African American writer, public speaker, and activist, in which she expertly shreds the arguments of a “Mr. Page” who had apparently written in defense of the lynchings that were so common in the post-Civil War South. You could also try to decipher the handwritten diary of Civil War nurse Clara Barton, in which she describes her feelings about a new home and notes how much she paid for a local post office box.

If you want to just look at some of the documents or even try your hand at transcribing, it’s easy to begin. All you have to do is go to the By the People topic page, and click on the “View Projects” button of the campaign you’re interested in. Each campaign page provides a background of the history you are about to encounter, how many contributors have already volunteered for that particular campaign, and how many documents have been completed, are in need of review, are in progress, or haven’t been started yet. There are plenty of documents for all: as of this writing, the campaign called “Suffrage: Women Fight for the Vote” had 48,380 documents in its crowdsourcing archive, and 23,363 hadn’t been claimed.

Below the statistics are rows of icons that represent each set of documents, along with a brief explanation of who wrote them and a bar that indicates how many have been completed. You can click on any set that interests you, choose a page, and dive in.

In short, if you’re at all interested in how political activists of a century ago fought, wrote, and lived, then the By the People project can be a captivating rabbit hole to fall into.