Patrick Wallace of Middlebury College kindly took the time to answer questions from Sara Brumfield of FromThePage, and discussed their project and experience using the platform.
Patrick Wallace is the Digital Projects & Archives Librarian of Middlebury College.
First, tell us about your documents.
Middlebury College Special Collections has been using FromThePage mainly to transcribe manuscript letters related to Anglo-American literature, the American Civil War, and the Abolitionist movement.
As home to the Bread Loaf School of English and Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, so we have an extensive collection of papers from major 19th and 20th Century American writers. The more exciting parts include correspondence between many "big names" of the transcendentalist movement and their families - Thoreau, James, Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott, Fuller, and others. We also have a modest Hemingway collection, some items by Mark Twain... All really wonderful primary sources in Anglo-American literature that we are delighted to be able to make available to readers and researchers.
Something I did not know until I began working at Middlebury was the degree to which the transcendentalist writers were involved in the movement to abolish slavery in the United States. The most obvious example is probably Helen Thoreau, sister to Henry David Thoreau, who was a notable abolitionist and author of many letters that have found their way into our collection. The letters between abolitionists paint a detailed picture about the movement in New England, and the writers discuss everything from mundane family issues, to how their efforts are reported by the press, to the details of how, when, and where they are helping people move north via the Underground Railroad.
Finally, we have added many letters from Civil War soldiers and their families that contain very granular, personal accounts of how individuals experienced the war. It is important to note that a substantial portion of the Civil War letters and abolitionist papers are not actually part of Middlebury College's collections, but in fact belong to Rokeby Museum, a historical farmstead and museum a few miles north of Middlebury that has partnered with us to digitize, share, and transcribe some of their archival material.
What are your goals for the projects?
Our ultimate goal is simply to make our collections more accessible to students and researchers everywhere. Transcription solves two key issues with kinds of primary sources we have been focusing on: 19th century handwriting is hard for most people to read quickly and effectively without special training, and it is nearly impossible (at present) for machines to understand.
As workers at a liberal arts college, enhancing the archives' value as a scholarly resource is obviously a major concern. Archivists have a strong appreciation for the materiality of historic objects - paper and ink types, tear stains, cigarette burns, and other physical details that speak to the movement of a manuscript through time - but the ability to reduce an old letter to its textual content can make an item more accessible and useful, if only by allowing a reader to engage with the text more comfortably.
Transcription also presents its own instructional opportunities that work well in a classroom setting. Asking students to transcribe letters encourages them to engage with archival materials in many different ways, as both texts and material objects. Integrating transcription work into students coursework can also create a productive feedback loop between student researchers and Special Collections, as we re-integrate their work into the archives. So, we are excited that a number of our instructors have integrated transcription into their lesson plans.
The second goal, transcription for machine readability, is a basic requirement for making manuscript items discoverable through full-text keyword searches, compatible with assistive technologies like screen readers, and useful in computational text analysis. So, whether the goal is to provide more equal access to the visually impaired, make it easier for students to find primary sources in our repository, or support a scholar as they build a text corpus for algorithmic processing, transcription is always the first step. Especially as the COVID-19 pandemic made remote instruction the norm, and caused our physical archives to be mostly off-limits to researchers for over a year, having an accessible way to carry on with transcription online has been hugely beneficial.
How are you recruiting or finding volunteers/collaborators?
Supporting instructors who integrate our manuscript collections into their lesson plans has been very productive. We also have had a lot of help promoting our use of FromThePage and recruiting transcribers from Rokeby Museum and their community members. Vermont is definitely a place where local connections are valued, and we are grateful for the amount of work that Rokeby's promotional efforts and community outreach has inspired.
Like all of our digitized archival content, the manuscripts we upload to FromThePage are made freely available via Internet Archive [https://archive.org/details/middleburycollege]. Manuscript items have a note in their Internet Archive metadata records encouraging users to help us with transcription via FromThePage and providing relevant links; once complete, those transcripts are reunited with the original item in Internet Archive. While I do not have specific data, I suspect that small change to our metadata records has helped recruit a number of volunteers.
Finally, I absolutely must highlight the massive contributions made by Middlebury College Library staff who were working from home during the earlier part of the pandemic. We would certainly not have as many complete transcripts without their willingness to help us out in Special Collections when normal library operations were suspended!
Can you share your experience using FromThePage?
FromThePage has been a delight to use. We've gotten very good feedback from volunteers and partners from the transcribers' perspective. Support is super responsive and easy to work with, and has made migrations and integrations painless. For us, the IIIF manifest and Internet Archive import options are particularly appreciated. We have very limited staffing and Internet Archive is our main public-facing repository; IIIF and the Internet Archive importer make adding new collections to FromThePage a snap!
How does FromThePage & crowdsourcing fit with special collections and archives?
Using a crowdsourcing platform like FromThePage opens up the possibility for students, researchers, and local community members to make meaningful contributions toward improving our historical collections. Libraries and archives often think of themselves as neutral provisioners of information, rather than active collaborators in information production, but promoting a two-way relationship between archives and researchers benefits everyone.
For example, a student provided with a letter to transcribe might view transcription only as a component of their coursework - a chore to satisfy their professor and the chance to learn something about using primary sources, but without any lasting importance beyond the end of the semester. When students know their work will become an integral part of the archives, the same assignment can offer them the satisfaction of making tangible contributions to a broader enterprise, and illustrates the iterative nature of scholarship and the labor of knowledge production as a praxis. For the archivist, of course, collaborating with students and instructors means that the more our collections are used, the more they are enriched.
Shifting the relationship between archivists and researchers toward mutual collaboration is especially important, in my opinion, for liberal arts education. Most scientists are accustomed to sharing raw data they produce on the way to a published book or paper; in fact, doing so is typically a prerequisite for one’s findings to be taken seriously, because it allows for replication and validation by others in the community. In my experience, the dominant mode of liberal arts and humanities research seems to be more teleological, more focused on individual authorship and canonical texts. So, I tend to believe any technology that makes information lifecycles more transparent, participatory, and recursive also has the potential to make liberal arts and humanities scholarship more collaborative and democratic as a whole.