CCU students to participate in the making of history for Women’s History Month
Transcription Jam: the Papers of Mary Church Terrell will take place Wednesday, March 27, from 4-6 p.m. in the Edwards Digital Commons, Room 106.
Sarah Lozier-Laiola, assistant professor of digital culture and design within the Department of English, organized this first-ever crowdsourcing event on the CCU campus to allow students to have a hand in making and preserving history.
Students of all majors will be transcribing the handwritten letters, speeches and writings of suffragist and civil rights advocate Terrell (1863-1954). Terrell was the first black woman appointed to the District of Columbia Board of Education, the founding president of the National Association of Colored Women, and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
A transcription event involves a group of people transferring primary source material from a scanned, digital format to a typed format that allows for searching and tagging in a digital environment, making the material more widely accessible. Participants need not have experience in computer programming or transcription, but may simply participate to help move the digital humanities project forward.
The event uses the By the People crowdsourcing platform established by the Library of Congress (LOC) in 2018. The project is a partnership between the LOC and a national community of volunteers, supported by the National Digital Library Trust Fund.
Lozier-Laiola said the event is about introducing students to the practices that comprise digital humanities, and she hopes it attracts students who are interested in that field or history, women’s and gender studies, or American studies.
“We’ll be writing and preserving our own history, and I think that’s important,” said Lozier-Laiola. “We want students to think, ‘Yeah, I can take an hour and type what I see on the page and feel like I’ve had a hand in saving and preserving history,’ especially for a figure like Terrell, because she’s one of those people who should be more well known but isn’t. She doesn’t have the name recognition that, say, Harriet Tubman does.”
Terrell’s papers, which include 13,000 documents that were digitized from 34 reels of previously produced microfilm, include letters to W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington, among others, and span the years 1851 to 1962.
“Terrell represents a kind of gap in our archive, a gap in our recall knowledge,” said Lozier-Laiola. “She was born in 1863, the year of the Emancipation Proclamation, and she died just two months after the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education decision,” which declared that the racial segregation of children was unconstitutional. “She lived in this really contentious period for both women and black rights in the United States, and she doesn’t have the name recognition that she should.”
After the transcription is submitted, LOC librarians will check the files for errors and then proceed with tagging the files with searchable terms.
Another goal of the event is to demonstrate to participants the human labor, and the potential for human error, that is involved in digital research, as well as academic research of any kind. Lozier-Laiola expects that students transcribing for the first time may feel nervous or underprepared, but that’s part of the lesson.
“If we’re just working from handwriting, we can see where human error can come in,” said Lozier-Laiola. “I’d like to challenge what tends to be a cultural blind trust in digital texts. We also want to emphasize that there’s always a space of human labor that goes between our digital stuff and our stuff stuff. I’m sure there’s going to be some anxiety that comes up; students might think, ‘I don’t know what it says. I can’t read it. What if I put in the wrong thing?’ And I would reply, ‘Yes, that’s right, you should feel that. It’s a good sign that you feel that, but also, it’s OK because it’s going to be checked a few times, so just do the best you can.”
Lozier-Laiola joined the CCU faculty in Fall 2018 and was eager to organize this inaugural transcription jam after holding two similar events at her previous institution, Georgia Tech. One transcribe-a-thon was held on Feb. 14, 2018, at Georgia Tech as part of a national event to commemorate Frederick Douglass’ 200th birthday by transcribing the Freedmen’s Bureau Papers.
Another event involved crowdsource mapping of conditions following Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, based on Google satellite images. The project provided real-time information to relief workers about buildings and facilities that had been impacted by the storm. Lozier-Laiola is looking forward to bringing this digital transcription endeavor to CCU and holding future events to bring attention to both historical figures and natural disaster recovery efforts.
Lozier-Laiola has experienced the emotional connection that can occur when transcribing the personal documents of a historical figure – information that doesn’t exist anywhere else – and she hopes this event creates that experience for students.
“The reading, the interpreting, the transcribing is a little bit like reliving the experience, so it becomes this moment of real history,” said Lozier-Laiola. “It’s not going to show up in a textbook, it’s not going to show up in a history lecture, it’s that kind of person-to-person connection. It reminds you that history is cool.”