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Friday, June 13, 2014

Happy Birthday to the Smithsonian’s Transcription Center!

As the nation’s premier museum system, the Smithsonian has an enormous collection of historical documents, many of which remain largely unstudied. To allow the public to aid us in the analysis and transcription of these documents, the Smithsonian launched the Transcription Center on June 15, 2013.  As we celebrate our one year anniversary, we are amazed by how much the public has contributed in helping this Smithsonian project.  Let’s do a quick review.

This is a new online system for the public to help us transcribe and review these historical documents held at the Smithsonian.  If you have not seen the Transcription Center before, we invite you to take a quick look at it at

The Transcription Center home page
The Transcription Center contains many different types of documents for our volunteers to choose from.  For example, Field Notebooks were frequently used by Smithsonian scientists as they went on scientific expeditions in the US and around the world.  The field notes documented their journeys and observations of animals, plants and people along the way.  Take a look at an example notebook from 1963 on the observation of Cyanerpes (honeycreepers) birds.  When I look at these notes, I am amazed by the painstaking details and the author’s systematic approach in his work, not to mention the valuable data he collected.

Transcribing a page from a 1963 notebook on the observation of Cyanerpes (honeycreepers) birds by Martin Moynihan

The Transcription Center also includes many diaries from artists and scientists which shed light on the events of the past. Take a peek at Leo Baekeland's diary, started in 1907. Leo Baekeland created Bakelite,  an early plastic; his inspiration, frustrations and motivation are well documented throughout his diary.  

There are also many manuscripts, personal letters, and business documents available to be transcribed. Another example project in the Transcription Center is the Charles Henry Hart Autograph collection, 1731-1912.  This is a collection of 167 letters sent between artists to trace the history of art.

A page from the Charles Henry Hart Autograph collection, 1731-1912.
Since the materials are available online, anyone can access these documents from their homes, schools, or offices.  Since launching the Transcription Center, we have already received an overwhelming number of digital volunteers helping us to transcribe and review the documents.  In the first 12 months since we launched the application, we have had more than 900 active volunteers contribute to our crowdsourcing effort.  Together, our volunteers have completed 96 projects which included over 12,980 pages of documents.  A list of the completed projects can be found here; you can read these documents online or download them as PDF files.  They can be used as research references, support documents for homework, or simply reading materials to help you learn more about history.  

One more exciting outcome from the completed transcription: you can search the transcribed text of the object in the Smithsonian’s Collection Search Center.  For example:  In Leo Baekeland’s diary, he talked about “shellac” three time in his diary.  You can now search on “Shellac” online, and get the relevant pages.

A search result page from the Smithsonian Collections Search Center.

Our volunteers come from 124 countries, but most of them are from the United States.  People from all 50 states have joined us in actively transcribing and reviewing our documents.  Outside of the US, the top ten countries from which  our volunteers hail include New Zealand, United Kingdom, Australia, Israel, Canada, Kazakhstan, Netherlands, India, Venezuela and Brazil.

I am humbled by the incredible participation of our volunteers who have given us their time and dedication to help the Smithsonian in the Transcription Center.  We know how much time it must have taken to transcribe the over 12,980 pages of documents already completed – documents which frequently have illegible handwriting and difficult page layouts.  Yet the quality of the finished transcription is outstanding!  In our communications with our volunteers, we can tell that everyone is dedicated to producing quality work.  Our volunteers take full advantage of the “Review” function in the Transcription Center; they reviewed and corrected any inaccurate content and their efforts have resulted in accurate transcriptions for everyone to use.  

Our next blog post will discuss our efforts to make the use of the transcriptions which our volunteers have provided. Stay tuned for more!

Ching-Hsien Wang, Project Manager for the Transcription Center
Library and Archives System Support Branch, OCIO

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