Reaching audiences beyond the Museum’s walls is something NMAAHC staff try to do every day. One way for the public to engage with the Museum’s collection is by digitally volunteering to transcribe collection objects such as letters, newspapers, pamphlets, and other materials through the NMAAHC’s Transcription Center Project.
The Smithsonian Transcription Center is a pan-Smithsonian website that allows digital volunteers, or “volunpeers,” from around the world to transcribe documents, photograph captions, field books, and other materials online. To participate, volunpeers can create an account or work anonymously. Volunpeers can begin by transcribing a new document or continuing the work that another volunpeer has started. Once a volunpeer decides he or she has “finished” a document and the document is ready for review, a different volunpeer (who must have an account on the site) can review the transcription and either send it back for edits or mark it complete. Once reviewed, the transcriptions are downloadable and become fully searchable in the Transcription Center, the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center, and through other search engines.
‘Volunpeers’ underscores the values articulated by volunteers describing their activities and personal goals on the [Transcription Center], including to learn, to help, and to give back to something bigger.Meghan Ferriter Former Transcription Center Coordinator
Since 2015, NMAAHC collections have been available for the public to engage with via the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center, a place for access, research, and discovery. Thanks to digital volunteers from around the world anyone can now search word-for-word newspaper articles from The Liberator, James Baldwin’s personal correspondence, and Questlove’s music notes, just to name a few.
In addition to making collection objects accessible for discovery, transcriptions help curatorial staff make new discoveries about the objects and connections across different parts of the collections at NMAAHC and around the Smithsonian.
Transcribing these documents is an important and necessary step in uncovering the history of slavery and allows the curatorial department to more easily and efficiently delve into the past and bring that past to our visitors. The TC feels like an extension of the curatorial department - the people that do the transcribing are literally helping us re-write history.Ayla Amon Curatorial Researcher
One of the first collections that the NMAAHC featured on the Transcription Center was a collection of personal objects and letters belonging to James Baldwin that document his life as an expatriate writer and activist in the second half of the twentieth century. The collection includes personal letters written to members of the Baldwin family, records documenting Baldwin’s participation in the Civil Rights Movement, and even a playbill for Baldwin’s Broadway play “Blues for Mr. Charlie.” After volunpeers completed the collection, we hosted a live Google Hangout interview session with museum specialist Tulani Salahu-Din who spoke about collecting the Baldwin materials, Baldwin himself, and answered questions sent by volunpeers.
During Black History Month 2017, the NMAAHC and Anacostia Community Museum (ACM) teamed up to transcribe records relating to African American educational institutions and African American theater. Projects included yearbooks from Hampton Institute and Alabama State and programs from the Shearer Summer Theater in Oak Bluffs, a vacation spot for many African Americans in Martha’s Vineyard. At the conclusion of the month long transcription event, both NMAAHC and ACM provided volunpeers with behind-the-scenes digital experiences.
The work done by our volunpeers has helped us discover information and increase access to our collections on an unprecedented scale. Please join in and help us transcribe NMAAHC collections.