Transcribing Historical Documents for the Smithsonian Institution

Abby Hill

I was originally planning to intern with a funeral home during the summer, however due to COVID-19 restrictions, they told me they could no longer employ me. Dr. Gooding was kind enough to send me a link to an Atlanta Journal Constitution article about how you can combat boredom at home with volunteering to transcribe with different organizations. After going through Handshake and applying to several different places and not finding anything, I decided to look at the Smithsonian’s and the National Archive’s websites. I chose the Smithsonian because it seemed easier to understand, they provided instructions, and a way to track your time. I was optimistic about the internship after doing an hour trial run of the site and decided that I would do this as my Summer 2020 internship. This type of internship is not what I had in mind initially, but in order to graduate on time, I needed the credit.

            One thing I learned quickly is that to perform well in an online internship, you need to understand how you work best. If you have trouble scheduling your time, managing yourself, or motivating yourself, then an online internship might not work for you. For an online internship like this, I had no direct supervisor or anyone telling me to do x number of hours a day for x many weeks. I would like to say that I am disciplined but I had a hard time consistently working. I had a four-week summer course all throughout June, which took up a lot of my time and energy. And once I was done with reading, writing, and doing homework for my class, I did not really want to sit at my computer for another few hours transcribing.

            I think this internship would be the most enjoyable for people who are interested in linguistic anthropology, a specific collection of documents, or a certain time period in history. If you are interested or passionate about what you are transcribing, that would help the time pass quicker. For the most part, once I got over the hurdle of two or three hours, I could find a productive energy and work for long periods of eight to ten hours. There were still days where I struggled to focus and stay motivated, but what helped me the most was adhering to the schedule I had made. Seeing my days mapped out with the hours I would need to transcribe along with other things like meetings, chores, homework, etc. helped me to visualize the amount of work that I was doing and how it was all adding up in the end.

            One aspect of this internship that I appreciated the most was the portability. I could use my phone as an internet hotspot for my laptop when I did not have Wi-Fi so I could still work. For example, I used this method to transcribe while riding in the car for a few hours. The availability to do this internship whenever I felt like it or had time was another thing that I enjoyed. If I found that I had a spare hour or two, I could log on and work until I had to get off. That level of flexibility is perfect for people who are busy with classes or for those who cannot work a 9 to 5 job. Doing an online internship allows you to create your own schedule that works for you.

            Transcribing aids in public understanding of historical events and everyday life. The public can open their eyes and gain a new perspective about the way our culture has changed throughout time just by reading some letters between parents and their daughter. A good example of this is the Doris Blake collection, which are letters that describe normal happenings in the parent’s lives that they are explaining to their daughter. One specific cultural detail that I remember is Doris’s mother concerned about why an Irish catholic woman moved into a house down the street. She criticized the woman and said that their neighborhood did not need a person like that. Before taking Historical Archaeology with Dr. Powis, I did not know that people in America actively hated Irish immigrants, and it is not talked about often, so it was surprising to read. This instance was very satisfying to me because I could directly connect what I have learned in school with something outside of class.

            A fun thing about this internship was when I told people that my internship was transcribing historical documents for the Smithsonian, everyone was shocked and amazed. It also is fulfilling to have been a part of something that I think is important. Transcribing is essential for preserving historic documents that would be lost to time eventually. Due to the spread of COVID-19, the way people interact with museums may change forever. These institutions now have to digitize everything in order to provide the public with a way of accessing the collections. The first step to doing this, which most large institutions have already begun, is to scan documents, pictures, and digitize audio files. To be someone who promotes continued learning in the face of a pandemic is very rewarding.

The above picture is what my screen looked like as I transcribed. The document window is on the left, which you can zoom in or out or move using a mouse. The transcription box is on the right and is the larger box. Once a volunteer clicks onto the transcription box, it locks so only that volunteer can edit the transcript at a time. Inside the box, you simply type what you can read from the document. Sometimes this is nearly impossible because of really intense handwriting or fading. The Smithsonian made it a rule to simply transcribe what you can see because any amount of words that you can transcribe is more than what was there just a minute ago. The notes box is the smaller box on the right where volunteers can write comments to other volunteers, the staff at the Smithsonian, or just about the document in general.

            But here are some specific tips I found to be useful in doing this internship. First, use a mouse instead of the track pad on a laptop. You have more control with zooming in on the document and it made everything so much easier once I transitioned. Second, really read the general instructions and the specific instructions for each project- some will have advanced instructions depending on the documents. Some volunteers do not seem to read any instructions and will transcribe whole paragraphs incorrectly, but when that happened to me I would put in the notes box how to transcribe something difficult or “Per Smithsonian rules, you no longer need to indicate when something is underlined.” None of the instructions are hard to find and the general instructions are shown to every new volunteer. Lastly, take notes while you are working so you can refer to them later when you have to do your journal entries and essays. Having specific examples of behavior, language, etc. can make doing the work so much easier and I wish someone would have told me that when I first started.

            I do not think I will ever have a job in this field. I am more interested in biological anthropology, but for someone who is interested in linguistics, I think this internship would be interesting and give you experience. As I transcribed, I noted how differently people write and form sentences and how it changed over time. Because I was only an online volunteer, I did not receive any job offers as a result of this internship from the Smithsonian, however I now have a full time position with the same funeral home that I was going to intern with originally. And while my internship is not relevant to the funeral industry, they were very impressed and happy that I was able to get the credit I needed to graduate. So although this was not the internship I had in mind originally, I am able to graduate and feel like I made a small difference in the world.

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