If you’ve got a fas­ci­na­tion for his­to­ry, then the Library of Con­gress has a job for you — well, it’s a non-pay­ing job, but it’s worth a few min­utes (or hours) of your time.

The library is ask­ing any­one with a com­put­er and an inter­est in his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ments to join a crowd­sourc­ing project called By the Peo­ple, in which vol­un­teers will tran­scribe sev­er­al thou­sand doc­u­ments from the library’s vaults. Accord­ing to the site, the pur­pose of the project is to “improve search, read­abil­i­ty, and access to hand­writ­ten and typed doc­u­ments for those who are not ful­ly sight­ed or can­not read the hand­writ­ing of the orig­i­nal doc­u­ments.”

Online-based crowd­sourc­ing is not new; there have been aca­d­e­m­ic projects such as SETI@home (a radio tele­scope exper­i­ment that has been ongo­ing since 1999), gov­ern­ment projects such as the Nation­al Archives’ Cit­i­zen Archivist, and crowd­sourced traf­fic report­ing via apps like Waze.

By the Peo­ple invites inter­est­ed vol­un­teers to tran­scribe dig­i­tized images of per­son­al let­ters, diaries, receipts, speech­es, and oth­er doc­u­ments from famous and not-so-famous peo­ple who were involved in a vari­ety of his­tor­i­cal move­ments, most­ly from the 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­turies. Launched in the fall of 2018, By the Peo­ple has orga­nized its doc­u­ments into var­i­ous “cam­paigns” — such as the Civ­il War, the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment, and the suf­frag­ist move­ment — in order to let you choose the sub­ject mat­ter you’re most inter­est­ed in. You can do a tran­scrip­tion your­self, check some­one else’s work, or just read.

The inter­face for the tran­scrip­tion process is well-designed. Doc­u­ments are pre­sent­ed on the left half where you can mag­ni­fy it and move it around in its space to pro­vide the best view, which is espe­cial­ly use­ful for the cramped hand­writ­ing that’s often pop­u­lar among 19th cen­tu­ry writ­ers. The blank area on the right is where you type in your tran­scrip­tion.

These doc­u­ments offer a glimpse into the impor­tant issues of the time and the small details of day-to-day life. You could find your­self tran­scrib­ing a type­writ­ten page from Mary Church Ter­rell, 20th cen­tu­ry African Amer­i­can writer, pub­lic speak­er, and activist, in which she expert­ly shreds the argu­ments of a “Mr. Page” who had appar­ent­ly writ­ten in defense of the lynch­ings that were so com­mon in the post-Civ­il War South. You could also try to deci­pher the hand­writ­ten diary of Civ­il War nurse Clara Bar­ton, in which she describes her feel­ings about a new home and notes how much she paid for a local post office box.

If you want to just look at some of the doc­u­ments or even try your hand at tran­scrib­ing, it’s easy to begin. All you have to do is go to the By the Peo­ple top­ic page, and click on the “View Projects” but­ton of the cam­paign you’re inter­est­ed in. Each cam­paign page pro­vides a back­ground of the his­to­ry you are about to encounter, how many con­trib­u­tors have already vol­un­teered for that par­tic­u­lar cam­paign, and how many doc­u­ments have been com­plet­ed, are in need of review, are in progress, or haven’t been start­ed yet. There are plen­ty of doc­u­ments for all: as of this writ­ing, the cam­paign called “Suf­frage: Women Fight for the Vote” had 48,380 doc­u­ments in its crowd­sourc­ing archive, and 23,363 hadn’t been claimed.

Below the sta­tis­tics are rows of icons that rep­re­sent each set of doc­u­ments, along with a brief expla­na­tion of who wrote them and a bar that indi­cates how many have been com­plet­ed. You can click on any set that inter­ests you, choose a page, and dive in.

In short, if you’re at all inter­est­ed in how polit­i­cal activists of a cen­tu­ry ago fought, wrote, and lived, then the By the Peo­ple project can be a cap­ti­vat­ing rab­bit hole to fall into.

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