Join a world-wide movement without ever leaving home

Caitlin Haines takes us on a journey that began in a Victorian cemetery and led to the one of richest troves of archival, library and museum materials in the world. You can join her as the journey continues—The Smithsonian Transcription Center is actively seeking volunteers to help make our vast collections in art, history, and science more accessible to anyone with a curious spirit.

When I was 12 years old, my parents took me to Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia (where I grew up) for an historic walking tour. Despite my initial doubts, less than fifteen minutes into the tour I was hooked. Oakland is a beautiful Victorian cemetery, but it wasn’t the gardens or the design that fascinated me, it was the history. The names of individuals carved into those headstones each held a story, a glimpse into Atlanta’s past, and I wanted to know everything. Years later, while studying history and anthropology at Emory University, I interned in Oakland’s archives. I helped to process collections, implement preservation projects, and conduct background research on the cemetery’s records. This experience taught me that the real stories—the ones I was so fascinated by years before—weren’t fully told on the headstones, in books, or in the words of the cemetery tour guides—they were in the archival documents. I realized that the archives held the history told by those who lived it….and thus, my love of archival collections and historic materials began.

Now, as Coordinator of the Smithsonian Transcription Center, I get to explore some of the richest archival, library, and museum materials in the world, learning the historical details of people, events, and scientific research from every continent. The best part? I get to do all this alongside over 11,300 curious and dedicated digital volunteers who teach me new things about our collections every day.

Screen shot of web page

Learn more about the Smithsonian Transcription Center at https://transcription.si.edu/.

Started in 2013, the Smithsonian Transcription Center is a website (freely accessible, 24 hours a day) that connects volunteers around the world with Smithsonian collections available for transcription. This crowdsourcing project was developed—with the help of amazing SI staff and external developers—as a way to improve and increase the quality of public engagement with Smithsonian materials, increase access and use of our digitized content, and create pathways of learning and new knowledge between the public and Smithsonian staff.  In short—the Transcription Center is a place for you (and anyone in the world) to explore materials held within the Smithsonian and play your part in making those collections more accessible.

So how does it work? When Smithsonian collections—including manuscripts, diaries, photographs, fieldbooks, catalog cards, specimen sheets, and much more—are digitized they can be linked to catalog records and displayed in the Smithsonian’s two main databases: Collections Search Center and the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives (or SOVA). These digitized items can then be imported by staff into the Transcription Center, where volunteers (or as we call them, volunpeers) can choose any project to view, transcribe, and/or review. Once all items in a project are completely transcribed and reviewed, Smithsonian staff approve the transcriptions. The transcribed pages are then always available via the Transcription Center, as well as through other Smithsonian sites (like Collections Search Center) where transcriptions are text searchable—and thus more discoverable and accessible.

Anyone with access to a computer and the internet can become a volunpeer. Simply head to the Transcription Center and sign up for an account. After you set your password, take some time to review the Tips and Instructions pages, and then dive in! This is your opportunity to engage with Smithsonian collections, so do as much or as little as you want. You can even keep track of your work and download a report of all your transcription accomplishments via the “My Work” section of the site.

Hayes on bench with dog and Abraham Lincoln statue

Caitlin Hayes (and friends)

Have a question about what you’re working on? Want to share a discovery you’ve made? Found a resource that’s particularly helpful to transcribing a certain project? Reach out to me and the Transcription Center team anytime through email (transcribe@si.edu) or directly through the feedback button on the website. Join us on social media (Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram) as well, for new tips, stories from the collections, project highlights, and to connect with your fellow volunpeers and Smithsonian collaborators (use the hashtag #Volunpeer). We want to hear from you about your Transcription experience and discoveries. Your contributions improve our collections and teach us about Smithsonian history, and we can’t wait to see what we all learn together next!

Happy Transcribing!

Caitlin Haynes has been with the Smithsonian since 2015, serving as the Reference Archivist for the National Anthropological Archives in the National Museum of Natural History, from 2015 to 2018, when she joined the Office of the Chief Information Officer as coordinator of the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Caitlin has master’s degrees in history and library science from the University of Maryland, College Park. She lives in Greenbelt, Md., with her husband and their two dogs: Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt.

Posted: 8 June 2018
About the Author:

The Torch relies on contributions from the entire Smithsonian community.