Hidden History: A Library of Congress Virtual Internship

Adrianna Dunn

I started this year with a complete plan leading to my graduation. My practicum requirements were going to be fulfilled this Summer 2020.  I was accepted to be a Research Assistant for Dr. Smith’s Greek Osteology Research Project. But four weeks in Greece turned to eight weeks at home in Connecticut with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As the research trip was cancelled and more internships became unavailable, I was unsure as to if I would be able to meet my graduation goal. Luckily, I received an email from Dr. Gooding that contained a virtual internship opportunity that I could complete from home. The internship would be volunteering to transcribe online materials for the institution of my choice. I chose to be a Library of Congress volunteer. Virtually transcribing materials was not how I had expected my internship to be. I had expected my internship to be more hands-on and interacting with multiple people. Though it was not what I had expected, I was glad that I would still be able to graduate when I planned.

To volunteer for the Library of Congress, began with creating a personal account in By the People. By the People is the application by which volunteers can keep track of the materials they transcribe and review. Transcription was needed so that the materials could be preserved and available for search engines and the public. Before I could register for the internship, I had to show that I would be able to complete the work required. I transcribed one of the documents and submitted proof that it was accepted. That was the beginning of my virtual internship.

By the People transcribing portal.

The materials were in different campaigns that the Library of Congress posted. Materials included handwritten and typed papers, legal documents, letters, and even diary entries. Some documents were even from people during the Revolutionary War. Most of my work was self-guided. The Library of Congress provided a How to Transcribe guide, but other than that I was mostly on my own. It was different from other types of internships, as I mostly supervised myself.

I was able to set what times I would transcribe, and review, and I was able to fit time in with my other summer classes. The internship requirement of 150 hours was still in place, so I had to be on top of the time that I needed to work. I was able to break my time up into shifts. Though most of the material was interesting, such as, the drafts of Mary Church Terrell, an African American and Women’s rights activist, it could become tedious to be sitting and transcribing for five hours a day.

Mary Church Terrell paper circa 1897.

Breaking up the time I worked and taking breaks helped me stay focused and not feel as though it was dull. Transcribing every day for eight weeks can definitely feel tiresome. There were some days that I dreaded going back to the computer and looking at more papers. I had to be extremely dedicated and manage my time well.

Over the coming weeks I became better at transcribing and understanding different styles of writing and script. There were stories of different interactions that were enjoyable to read. Creativity was needed to complete the required internship assignments and papers. Since this was a virtual internship, I had to find ways that it could apply to anthropology and what I was learning from it.

I gained access to stories that are not often available in history books or websites. In addition, I could read individuals’ personal writings and thoughts that provided a more complete view of the culture and ideas of that time. Working as a virtual volunteer, I was able to provide completed materials for future research purposes and community access. I gained a better understanding of how historical materials are preserved. It was an interesting look into archival work and public institutions.

Boston newspaper circa 1833-1916.

By completing this virtual internship, I became better at analyzing and connecting materials to anthropology. I was able to learn methods for transcribing and I can now list transcribing as a skill on my resume. I was able to gain better time management and complete the hours at my own pace.  I gained experience with transcribing and found out that I do not want to focus on similar work in the future. I learned more about my work preferences and that I want to work in an environment with opportunities to be active and have more hands-on projects.

There are many benefits to transcribing for the Library of Congress. The ability to set a schedule is great for anyone that has other responsibilities or classes. Transcribing is also a transferable skill and is a notable contribution to a resume or CV. Access to historical materials can enhance cultural understanding and give context to past stories, as well as be more readily available for the public and community use. Though the work can be tedious at times, volunteering virtually is a great option for anyone looking for an internship that they can complete at home.

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.