Smithsonian Asks Public for Help With Online Transcription

The goal is to create an archive of searchable text from images of historic objects

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    NEWSLETTERS

    John Gibbons, Smithsonian
    A tray of bumble bees from the National Museum of Natural History’s bee collection awaits digitization. The museum is digitizing all 45,000 specimens in its collection and using virtual volunteers to help transcribe important data found on each specimen’s tag. This data will help scientists studying declining bee populations in North America. (Photo: John Gibbons)

    History is full of secrets. For the first time ever, the Smithsonian Institution is asking for your help unlocking them.

    The institution launched its online Transcription Center Tuesday. The site allows members of the public to help transcribe text from digitized images of historic documents.

    Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said in a press release Tuesday that the institution is "thrilled to invite the public to be our partners."

    "For years, the vast resources of the Smithsonian were powered by the pen; they can now be powered by the pixel," Clough said in the release.

    The goal is to create a gigantic archive of searchable text from images of journals, letters, specimens and other objects. Much of the text in these photos is handwritten and cannot easily be read by computers.

    The press release said Smithsonian staff would take decades to complete the project without the help of the public.

    Documents that still require transcription include field reports from Langdon Warner, one of the Monuments Men; as well as personal letters from famous artists, and a record of scientific experiments conducted by the first secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

    Currently, there are 39,000 documents that still need to be transcribed. They are grouped into projects so progress can be charted. Anyone interested can search available projects on the Smithsonian website. It is also possible to search by specific theme, such as "American Experience" or "Mysteries of the Universe."

    For the past year, the project has been in a beta testing stage. Almost 1,000 volunteers completed more than 13,000 pages of transcription, which included personal letters from the Monuments Men and one of the world's largest collections of bumblebee specimens.

    Once a transcription is complete, it will be reviewed for accuracy by another volunteer and then by a Smithsonian expert.

    Interested volunteers will need to register online but projects are being completed daily, so if you want to be a part of preserving history, act now -- and check out the Smithsonian's transcription tips to help get you started.