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Volunteer at Home by Transcribing Historical Documents

The Library of Congress, National Archives and Smithsonian Institution want your help

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Getty Images

You can volunteer without leaving home, whether you have limited mobility, few transportation options or just want to stay away from crowds.

The Library of Congress, the National Archives and Records Administration and the Smithsonian Institution all have similar programs that allow volunteers to transcribe scanned documents to improve their searchability and access. Your work will last for generations to come.

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"A lot of these materials have been digitized and available to the public before through our databases. But just because you have a diary that was written by Mary Henry doesn't mean that you're able to search for and locate everything that she said in that diary,” says Caitlin Haynes, coordinator at the Smithsonian's Transcription Center.

In many cases optical character recognition (OCR), the technology used to convert typed images into text, cannot read cursive or interpret older documents that typically are smudged or have faded with time.

“We think readers of AARP have a superpower. They can read cursive.”

— Suzanne Isaacs, community manager for the National Archives Catalog

"OCR will really be a waste of time,” Haynes says. “There would be so many mistakes, it would be absolutely impossible for somebody to go through” to fix them.

None of the three federal entities requires a commitment for a specific quantity of material, subject matter or time. They suggest that volunteers use a computer instead of a smartphone or tablet because transcription is easier on a PC with a keyboard.

"We think readers of AARP have a superpower — they can read cursive,” quips Suzanne Isaacs, community manager for the National Archives Catalog. “We need them to help us because a lot of kids today and younger people don't know how to read cursive."

The Library of Congress and the Smithsonian have a review process by which volunteers review one another's work for accuracy. The Archives allows comments, so users can share knowledge, discuss related records and ask questions.

Pages are never considered closed and completed.

To improve the search process, the Archives and the Library of Congress have an additional measure, called tagging, providing keywords such as an author's name, contextual information or elements specifically mentioned in the text. But volunteers don't have to assist in particular steps of the process they don't want to. Here's more about each effort.

spinner image main reading room of the thomas jefferson building of the library of congress
Blaine Harrington III / Getty Images

Library of Congress, By the People

Started: October 2018

Volunteers: 13,000 registered; however, anonymous users have clicked save 35,000 times.

Processes: Transcribe, review and tag

Pages completed: 55,000 pages transcribed; 50,000 pages awaiting review

How to find what interests you: The library curates campaigns that allow volunteers to pick what interests them most. New collections are added all the time, including letters to Abraham Lincoln, the papers of Rosa Parks, the writings of Walt Whitman, archives of the suffragist movement and baseball legend Branch Rickey's scouting reports.

Special projects: The library recently launched its first non-English campaign, Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents, which includes papers in Spanish, Latin and Catalan. Herencia means “heritage."

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To mark the 100th anniversary of women's right to vote, volunteers are working on about 50,000 pages from the archives of five movement leaders: Susan B. Anthony, Carrie Chapman Catt, Anna E. Dickinson, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mary Church Terrell. Volunteers have completed more than 20,000 pages, but about 10,000 still need to be fully transcribed and another 20,000 await review.

"We hope volunteers can help us finish all of these pages by the end of this centennial year,” says Lauren Algee, senior innovation specialist at the Library of Congress Labs and the community manager.

spinner image national archives building in downtown washington d c
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National Archives, Citizen Archivists

Started: It began tagging in 2010 and transcription several years later

Volunteers: Thousands participate every year.

"We have a lot of retirees who use this as their volunteer project, where every day they work on many, many pages for us,” Isaacs says. “They do a fantastic job."

Processes: Transcribe, tag and comment

Pages completed: Over 565,000 pages have transcription, tags or comments. 86,000 pages have been completed in the last six months.

By 2024, half a billion pages are expected to be digitized and available for Citizen Archivists to work on in the National Archives Catalog.

"This is a catalog of the National Archives, so our goal is to digitize everything and put it online, not selected materials,” Isaacs explains.

How to find what interests you: The Archives curates missions in hopes of helping volunteers get started. Missions include transcribing captions on World War I photographs, statements and speeches of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as well as award cards related to military service. Users may also browse records to see what else is available.

"By transcribing, and tagging records, you're unlocking history,” Isaacs says. “There could have been a letter between Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. But by transcribing every word, we now know the exact details, and all of those words are now searchable in our catalog."

spinner image view of the top towers of the smithsonian castle on the national mall in washington d c surrounded by magnolia and cherry trees in bloom
jimfeng / Getty Images

Smithsonian Transcription Center

Started: June 2013

Volunteers: 14,455, averaging 150 a week. Generally, participants range from ages 25 to 35 and 55 and older.

Pages completed: 511,000; millions remain.

Processes: Transcribe and review, after which Smithsonian staff approve work. Smithsonian officials have found volunteers to be so diligent in producing their work and reviewing one another's transcriptions that the third step isn't always necessary.

"The volunteers are pretty self-sufficient, and they blow us away with how impressive and dedicated they are,” Haynes notes.

How to find what interests you: Under the projects tab, browse historical eras or categories, such as art and design, women's history and world cultures. Each Smithsonian museum has its own projects that you can view directly, or use the search bar to type in terms of direct interest.

Special projects: The institution just wrapped up its Black History Month campaign. Although the month is over, projects related to African American film, newspapers and political pamphlets remain unfinished. March marks initiatives for Women's History Month, including parts of the Sally Ride papers from the National Air and Space Museum.

Extra: Historical audio can be transcribed with time-stamped captions. These efforts provide access to people who are unable to hear the sound version.

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