The Smithsonian Institution is seeking volunteers to transcribe handwritten documents. (KAREN BLEIER / AFP)
The Smithsonian Institution has opened a new website to the public where volunteers can help turn thousands of handwritten documents into searchable records.
The Transcription Center website features over 39,000 digitized documents such as Civil War journals and personal letters that require human transcription. The Smithsonian estimates it would take its staff decades to transcribe its collection, but hopes the power of the crowd will cut that time considerably.
The Smithsonian has already seen some success working with online volunteers. A recent beta test showed that 1,000 volunteers could complete 13,000 pages of transcription in a year. In another project, members of the Reddit community helped transcribe the 121-page diary of Earl Shaffer, the first man to hike the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. It only took volunteers two weeks.
By creating digital and searchable material, the Smithsonian would be able to open up its catalog to researchers and enthusiasts around the world. The current projects were selected based on high demand and accessibility issues. For example, one of the Transcription Center’s highlighted projects is deciphering the nearly 45,000 specimen labels of its bumble bee collection. Previously, scientists studying the bumble bee’s population decline would have had to visit the museum and go through the labels themselves.
Some of the Transcription Center’s current projects include handwritten personal letters from the Archives of American Art, field reports from American archeologist Langdon Warner and notebooks from bird watcher James Eike.