Project Profile: Doten Diaries

Alfred Doten

An interview with Donnie Curtis, from University Nevada Reno, on her Doten Diaries project. Find the project on FromThePage.

First, tell us about your documents.

Diary entries were written by Alfred Doten every day of his life from the day he left home in Plymouth Massachusetts in 1849 at age 19 to seek gold in California until the day he died in 1903 in Carson City, Nevada. The 79 volumes of his diaries document the social history of the West in the pivotal early years of settlement. He was especially candid about his private life. In the 1960s the diaries were transcribed and edited and published in an abridged format, incorporating about half of the content. The first phase of our project was to make the earlier publication, which is out of print, available and searchable online. Our long-term intent is to publish the ENTIRE contents of Doten’s diaries on the web, with enhancements. The website will contain everything that was part of the diaries, including photographs, theater playbills and other ephemera, and the many newspaper clippings that were pasted and tucked into his diaries. 

We are depending on volunteers to complete the transcription of all of the diaries and some of the newspaper clippings. Of the 79 volumes, 55 have been completed, but we are looking for additional volunteers to finish the rest of them. The documents that are currently available on From the Page are the imperfect transcripts that were used for the earlier publication. They need to be digitized (retyped) and then those documents can be easily edited against the original handwritten diaries for the online edition. We have also used From the Page for the transcription of newspaper clippings that will be part of the project

What are your goals for the project?

We hope to have the transcripts completed within a few months.They will provide the backbone for the web project. We are aiming for a scholarly edition that will be complete, accurate, and authoritative, following scholarly editorial standards. We anticipate that it will be an important primary resource for researchers, while at the same time it will be an educational resource for students and history enthusiasts and an accessible source of information for anyone looking for information on the time period and locations covered in the diaries.

How are you recruiting or finding volunteers/collaborators? 

A few core participants have signed on to the larger project as they learned about it, and have stuck with it and accomplished a great deal during the past few years. But it is a big project, and everyone who is involved has other obligations and involvements, so it has become clear that we need more help. I would like to see it launched in my lifetime, and I’m not getting any younger. We have found some new collaborators recently on campus, and they have brought in some ideas to enrich the project with additional features, but we need some more “boots on the ground” to do the very important transcription work before we get to the frills. Crowdsourcing was something to try, to simplify the process of working with volunteers and to allow prospective volunteers to try out transcription and to take on as much as they could, “page by page.” The platform provides an infrastructure we didn’t want to have to create ourselves, allowing us to communicate with volunteers and to manage their work.

To find our “crowd,” we sent emails to everyone we knew who might be interested in volunteering, especially retirees, and asked them to spread the word. We also posted an appeal through our personal Facebook pages and shared it on our library Facebook page. We posted an announcement in a newsletter of a local historic preservation group, and we have plans to put another announcement in the “volunteer opportunities” section of a retired faculty newsletter. I will be speaking to a local history group in a few weeks. The response has been disappointing. Several people responded to the emails affirmatively, but have not followed through. But via email we found one volunteer who was interested in transcribing newspaper clippings, and he was persistent and productive, finishing 112  lengthy articles. He is currently taking a break for a few weeks to pursue a project of his own, but he promises to return. Another transcriber happened upon the project at From the Page and found it to her liking, but the timing is problematic for her.

It has proved to be a challenge to recruit volunteers, but we haven’t given up (yet). We came to realize that summer was not the best time to recruit volunteers, because so many people were busy with yards, outdoor projects, and traveling. Late fall and winter seem like a better time to try to entice people to spend more time with their computers.

Can you share your experience using FromThePage?  

Despite our shortage of volunteers, I believe that FTP has the potential to further our project. It is convenient to be able to send a URL directly to the project, and it is a headquarters for the transcribing phase, with instructions and a means to ask questions and record comments. In the past we have sent entire volumes from the diaries to transcribers, but the smaller chunks we can make easily available on From the Page SHOULD allow us to attract more transcribers. And the company of some of the other projects on FTP helps give our project legitimacy and status.

We have learned from our first experiences that it was especially hard to attract transcribers for the original handwritten diary pages that we uploaded at the beginning. Nineteenth century handwriting is a challenge to read, and Doten’s handwriting is especially off-putting. It didn’t help that he used a pencil and sometimes the pages were smudgy. Our page images were high quality facsimiles, but it takes practice and experience to be able to decipher them. From the Page invites visitors to “start transcribing,” and we reconsidered the first impression we were providing. We replaced those handwritten pages with the typed transcripts, and even though we lost the “diary feel” in doing that, it seems to open up opportunities to a wider range of people, including students who may not be able to read any cursive writing.

How does FromThePage & crowdsourcing fits with more traditional documentary editing?

FTP offers a reviewing step, and we have utilized that feature, reviewing the transcriptions ourselves with the help of a student assistant. On almost every page we have caught at least one error. Our current approach, getting the earlier typed transcripts into digital format for editing, adds a more traditional step to the process, using trained and skilled editors to proofread and catch the errors from the original transcripts and any new errors that might have been introduced by volunteers.

What would you tell folks considering a similar project?

I would suggest considering the best season to recruit volunteers from your target pool, entice them at the early stages with less challenging tasks, correspond with them by email to offer thanks and encouragement, and design your “works” to be a manageable size for an afternoon or evening of transcribing, to offer your volunteers a satisfying experience.

Anything else you’d like to tell us?

I can’t think of anything, but I’d be happy to answer follow-up questions. Thanks for this opportunity to spread the word!