Crowdsourcing the transcription of manuscripts is one of the many tools in the Digital History toolbox. Archives designate sites and provide a catalog of available manuscripts that registered users can transcribe for them. One of the challenges assigned to the Spring 2018 CCSU Digital History class was to experiment with a transcription task on the National Archives Citizen Archivist site.
Since I am fluent in mid-nineteenth century cursive writing, I sought out a handwritten records in the catalog and found “1869-Elliott, W L – File No. L385,” part of Record Group 94 Records of the Adjutant General’s Office 1762-1984, Series: Letters Received 1805-1889. Twenty-six of the 54 images in the file had already been transcribed. I first transcribed image 24 which I chose for its brevity (it being a description, used for filing purposes, of an inspection report of Fort Gratiot, MI July 26, 1869) to get a feel for how the process worked. Guided by both the Transcription Tips provided on the site but more by a review of transcriptions done on other images, it took very little time to complete the transcription including adding tags.
Since this first task wasn’t as daunting has I feared it would be, I went on to transcribe the previous image which was the last page of a report dated July 3, 1869 by Lt. Colonel W. E. Elliott to General L. H. Pelouze. And this was where the exercise became fun. This page of the report described the dereliction of duty of 1st Lieutenant William J. Dawes in leaving Fort Wilkins without “properly turning over the property of the Quarter Masters Dept.” Who was Lt. Dawes? I needed to know more about him.
A detour to Ancestry.com and Fold3 did not result in a huge amount of information but I did learn that William J. Dawes, a farmer in Fox Lake, Wisconsin, enlisted in the 8th Wisconsin Infantry during the Civil War and was mustered out at the rank of Captain of Company D. Unlike most of the citizen soldiers serving with state regiments during the War of the Rebellion, Dawes became “regular Army,” retiring to Milwaukee sometime before 1886.
Although initially disappointed that the items available for transcription did not include records directly related to my own special interest in the Civil War, a further search of the 8th Wisconsin’s record revealed that they had as their mascot “Old Abe,” a bald eagle that served with them during the war and who had a more distinguished wartime service record than Capt. Dawes (read more about Old Abe at the Heritage Section of the U. S. Army’s website).
Which then led me back home to Private Charles F. Taylor, a veteran from Co. B 8th Wisconsin who is one of “my” Hartford Civil War veterans.
From my brief encounter with the Citizen Archive, I would have to say that this project certainly contributes to the National Archives and Records Administration’s vision that “We will be known for cutting-edge access to extraordinary volumes of government information and unprecedented engagement to bring greater meaning to the American experience.” (emphasis mine)
It also proves Trevor Owens’ point that “crowdsourcing is better at digital collections than displaying digital collections.”
What crowdsourcing does, that most digital collection platforms fail to do, is offers an opportunity for someone to do something more than consume information. When done well, crowdsourcing offers us an opportunity to provide meaningful ways for individuals to engage with and contribute to public memory. Far from being an instrument which enables us to ultimately better deliver content to end users, crowdsourcing is the best way to actually engage our users in the fundamental reason that these digital collections exist in the first place.
I felt both of feeling of accomplishment and a sense of having meaningfully contributed to American history with this exercise. I hope to return to the Citizen Archivist project once this semester’s academic work is completed.