National Archives Transcription Pilot Project
Recently, the National Archives launched an ambitious project aimed at using “citizen archivists” to transcribe the millions of historical documents held by the archives. With increasingly tight travel funds for historians, this initiative means important research documents, previously only accessible through in-person visits, will be available from any computer in the world.
Combined with their Citizen Archivist Dashboard, NARA embarks on an ambitious national project that stands as one of the largest, free initiatives on the web. Users who have taken pictures of National Archives images can contribute by uploading their images. Others can volunteer to transcribe documents from the NARA collections that have already been uploaded through the Transcription Pilot Project.
Other organizations have used volunteer transcribers in the past, but the larger efforts have traditionally been undertaken by commercial entities. One example, Ancestry.com, sponsors the World Archives Project. While volunteering is free, further access to other finalized transcriptions can only be obtained by subscribing to their service. Luckily, crowd-sourcing initiatives with free access are taking off around the world. The University College of London’s Bentham Project, the State Library of North Carolina’s Family History Project, and the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University’s Papers of the War Department Project are but three examples.
Not only do such projects provide easier access for researchers, but they engage the public in new ways, potentially increasing interest in the field. History aficionados can interact with primary documents from their homes. For researchers concerned with the accuracy of these public transcriptions, the project has a series of “checks.” Similar to Wikipedia, the project utilizes crowd-sourcing so that other viewers can correct mistakes. Multiple transcribers can work on the same document. In addition, researchers can view the original image as well as the transcription. For documents with marginalia or unclear text, this feature proves invaluable. Quality control will always be a concern, but increased access to millions of documents will surely prove a boon to researchers.