William & Mary

Volunteers drawn to opportunity to transcribe history

  • Transcription Project
    Transcription Project  Volunteers from all over the United States are helping Special Collections in Swem Library transcribe over 3,000 documents from the Civil War.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Harder than it sounds
    Harder than it sounds  The documents being transcribed for the "Fights to Rights" project are over 150-years-old, so some of the handwriting is hard to decipher.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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The Earl Gregg Swem Library is commemorating the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War in a very special way, and with a little help from their friends.  Librarians and volunteers will transcribe 3,000 to 5,000 letters, diaries and other documents from the Era for a project called “Fights to Rights: The Long Road to a More Perfect Union”.

“When you’re in the middle of a Civil War, you know you’re a part of a big event, so a lot of families kept their documents,” said Susan Riggs, manuscripts and rare book librarian at Swem Library. “It’s not something that you look back on and think, that was probably important.  They knew they were in the middle of something important.”

Started July 1, the project has acquired more than 200 volunteers.  Still, many more are needed to help the library reach its goal of completing the project in 2015.

“Volunteering is as simple as picking the document you wish to transcribe on the Swem website,” said Amy Schindler, university archivist.  “People can see the images of the documents in either a black and white PDF or a color scan, and then they just pick, let us know, and get started.”

The documents that are being transcribed have come to special collections from a variety of sources over the years.  Some they have purchased, but a lot have come to the College via donation.  Upon arrival, the documents are uploaded to a database on the Swem website so those interested in volunteering can view them quite easily.

Once the transcription is complete, a volunteer at the library will check the text to make sure it is accurate and follows the guidelines found on the website.  Once approved, the transcriptions are then entered into the database.

“So far, we have about 100 transcriptions finished,” said Riggs.  “We have about 55 students currently volunteering, as well as faculty and even people from other states.  People have responded to our updates on Facebook and Twitter and we have folks from California, Texas and New Hampshire currently transcribing for us.”

Two of the volunteers are a couple from Texas, Ann Woolley ’75 and Mark Woolley ’77.  The couple has been transcribing for a few months now and has found that their family and friends love to help them untangle the sometimes hard-to-read cursive. 

“Although the penmanship can sometimes be challenging to decipher, the detailed information provided is compelling,” said Mrs. Woolley.  “The project truly brings history to life.”

Another volunteer, Mark Reardon, got involved in the project after reading a letter to the editor in the Virginia Gazette from Swem Library expressing the need for volunteers.  Reardon is recently retired and was looking for something to get involved in that would satisfy his interest in American history.  This project seemed to fit perfectly.

“All of these documents give a fascinating insight into the real life of people during the Civil War that cannot be gained from simply reading history books about battles and politics as written by historians,” Reardon said.

Reardon and the Woolley’s both agree that at times the documents are hard to read because they are faded and worn; however, both declared how rewarding and interesting the project is.

“The satisfaction of helping to make these documents available to the public is very gratifying,” said Reardon.  “The joy of reading what people living through this war a century and a half ago actually saw, believed, felt and said is very exciting.”

“These letters fill in some of the details of daily activities and bring the life of the average citizen into focus,” Mrs. Woolley explained.

Riggs and Schindler are hoping the volunteers will work on the project for several months or even years, and that more volunteers will join so that they can reach their goal of a 2015 completion date.  And the work doesn’t have to stop there. Once volunteers finish the Civil War portion of documents, they can leap forward in time to the documents from the Civil Rights Movement and begin transcribing those.

The “Fights to Rights” project is something very new to Special Collections.  This is the first time they ever requested volunteers to help them transcribe old documents.

“The software available makes it possible to push the content out and ask people to help because it is something we do not have the resources to do alone,” Schindler said.  “By putting the documents online, we have really expanded our reach which is extremely important to us.”

Information about the transcription project can be found on the Swem Library website.  To find out more about “Fights to Rights: The Long Road to a More Perfect Union”, click here.