First, tell us about your documents.
The Minker Collection is a set of 654 letters exchanged by five members of one family during WWII: Lee Minker, a young B-17 pilot, his mom, dad, and two teenage sisters. Lee wrote each of them separately, and their letters give different perspectives of life during the war. The correspondence spans pilot training in 1943-44 and combat in England 1944-45, where he was in command of a B-17. He flew 37 missions over Germany with his crew.
Minker asked his mother to keep his letters “as a diary” and fortunately he sent all of the family letters home. His mother stored everything for decades; this is one of the rarest collections of letters known to have survived the war and includes an 80-page scrapbook of photos and memorabilia. The entire collection was donated to the Delaware Historical Society (DHS) in 1998. In 2016 the letters and scrapbook were scanned and made available online at Delaware Historical Society.
Backstory: Many years after the end of the war (in 1980) I married that young pilot. We had a 16-year age difference, but as a history major, I was fascinated by his experience. We discovered the box of letters in a closet about 1990, and eventually realized how rare and valuable they were which led to the donation. We then worked with a WWII historian and in 2005 published a book based on the letters, An American Family in World War II. (Minker, O’Connell & Butowsky)
What are your goals for the project?
In one word – accessibility. The Minker Collection is a unique look at both the war and the home front. The intimacy of their story is a way to engage people and to preserve the history of the most critical time in the twentieth century. We wanted to make these personal letters accessible to a variety of researchers: teachers, students, WWII buffs, aviation museums, historians and genealogists.
I had worked with the education team at DHS to create lesson plans using these original sources. We quickly realized that the letters needed to be transcribed, today most young people cannot read cursive. Like others using FromThePage, the scans were not machine-readable and are difficult for users to do keyword or topic searches. Then there is the problem of searching such a large collection; search terms often miss the context and details. For example, the word rationing is mentioned only a few times, yet there are 31 comments about rationing. Further, search engines are inadequate for the nuances of feelings that engage the reader.
After we completed the transcription process, I went through each letter using the FromThePage index tools. By creating categories (subjects) I was able to identify important themes. The end result was a spreadsheet that allowed me to sort the 1700 citations into five themes with 33 topics that will be added to the Delaware website. One spreadsheet has citations from the letters of nearly 200 young men from Delaware who served, so genealogists should find it useful. Eventually, the new index will link a researcher from the DHS website to the transcription on the FromthePage server.
How are you recruiting or finding volunteers/collaborators?
This was a private project, I wanted to select who would be involved and manage the transcriptions. Several friends who had read our book joined in, I assigned each to a family member. We started the project during the early stages of covid, so people were looking for something to do. Two special recruits were the granddaughter of the youngest sister, Bernice Minker, and the niece of Minker’s co-pilot, Gordon Dodge. The granddaughter was the same age as Bernice when she wrote the letters, so that was a lot of fun for her. MaryLou Dodge Allen transcribed Lee Minker’s letters. She was familiar with the events of WWII from her uncle (who was the longest surviving member of the crew). A different person reviewed each set, so everyone got to do both tasks. At the end of transcription, 7 collaborators spent nearly 700 hours transcribing and reviewing more than 1500 pages.
Can you share your experience using FromThePage?
Rewarding, challenging, time consuming, frustrating – all at the same time. As an amateur in the archive/library world, it was an adventure with a steep learning curve.
The responsiveness of Sara and Ben to questions and willingness to help was an important element in helping me to stay with it.
The navigation of FromThePage was challenging at times, so I developed an Owner’s Handbook and a Transcriber’s Handbook with directions for each task. Whenever I brought on a new transcriber/reviewer, I had directions to send them. The booklet includes guidelines for handling misspellings, missing words, and illegible text.
How does FromThePage & crowdsourcing fit with writing projects or family history?
Ideal for family history. Involving family members with their history can be rewarding for them and help the project. The monthly single-project rate makes it affordable if you don’t take too long. Do some planning so that you can be efficient with the use of your resources The private project option seems best, if you use crowd sourcing, I recommend working with a limited number of collaborators initially to help you learn the process.
What would you tell folks considering a similar project?
Think through the project and plan how to use your resources. What is your end product? Involve family where you can. Figure out how you will get the documents scanned to import to FromThePage and do take advantage of the tools to identify subjects and do the indexing. As a small or a family project, make sure you can commit the time while paying the fee. Have fun with your discoveries!