Susannah Ural at the Civil War and Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project kindly took the time to answer questions from Sara Brumfield of FromThePage, and discussed their project and experience using the platform.
Ural is Professor of History and Director of the Civil War & Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi, a digital documentary edition based at the University of Southern Mississippi.
First, tell us about your documents.
Civil War and Reconstruction Governors of Mississippi Project (CWRGM) is grounded in Mississippi's governors' papers from the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
These are attractive to scholars because nineteenth-century Americans wrote to their governors about everything imaginable, and those who could not write found others to do so on their behalf.
In these collections, you can hear from people regardless of class, gender, race, religion, nativity, and age as they experience one of the most revolutionary periods in American history.
Traditional sources —diaries, letters, memoirs, and even newspapers — cannot provide this diverse level of access to historical voices because we so rarely find, or in the past preserved, the records of the poor and middling-classes. The historical irony is that in preferencing the collections of elite politicians, these collections preserved the voices of thousands of people who contemporaries would have considered unworthy of historical consideration.
CWRGM covers governors' administrations ranging from 1859 through 1882, which allows users to explore everything from the secession crisis through the Civil War, Reconstruction, and into the early New South. It includes over 20,000 documents, and a project of this scale is only possible because CWRGM is a true partnership of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History (MDAH), the Mississippi Digital Library (MDL), and the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) History program.
MDAH, which houses the original governors' papers, digitizes the collections, reviews them for quality, and then sends them to MDL for metadata creation and review. There our team drafts and verifies metadata before our Senior Assistant Editor, Dr. Stephanie Seal Walters, uploads the documents to FromThePage for transcription by volunteers and transcription and subject tagging by CWRGM research team members. That tagging allows for early annotation of the documents to help users explore the collection more effectively (see more on this below).
Once that work is complete, our digital developer, Anneliese Dehner, is building an Omeka-S based site that will house the collection and make it freely available online to teachers, students, scholars, and the general public.
What are your goals for the project?
We plan to have all 20,000 documents online with metadata, transcriptions, and annotations by 2030.
The collection also has lesson plans to help secondary educators incorporate these diverse nineteenth-century collections into classrooms. You can find a small sample of about 80 documents that provide a sense of the full collection, along with lesson plans, here and we're creating a podcast in Spring 2021 to help scholars, teachers, students, and the public better understand what this incredible collection has to offer.
How are you recruiting or finding volunteers/collaborators?
Grant funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) allows us to hire a team of USM undergraduate and graduate student researchers each year to draft and review transcriptions and tagging.
CWRGM Assistant Editor, Lindsey Peterson, oversees all of their work and helps me improve our transcription and tagging protocols as needed. When I know we have plenty of documents available, I work with public libraries, the state archives (MDAH), classroom groups, and community organizations to recruit volunteers.
We also created a small instruction training video that encourages volunteers to Get Involved with CWRGM transcriptions. As more and more documents become ready for transcription, I'll host more training sessions with public audiences to recruit the volunteers we'll need to stay on schedule.
Can you share your experience using FromThePage?
We decided to use FromThePage very early in the project because of its user-friendly nature. Everyone from secondary and college students to retiree volunteers can hop online and transcribe a document.
FromThePage offers template instructions that appear with every item — basic transcription protocols and best practices that project directors can tweak to their standards — and our short training video offers additional instruction grounded in our specific protocols.
FromThePage also tracks users' progress, including their work on a document, how long they were on the system, and more, which helps when teachers want to review students' work in the collection. It also helps me, as director of a large digital documentary edition, monitor our progress, note areas where we're running into issues, and resolve those in a timely manner.
How does FromThePage & crowdsourcing fits with more traditional documentary editing? With traditional historical research?
FromThePage makes it easy for even inexperienced volunteers to follow traditional field standards when transcribing documents.
It also ensures that the scholars, teachers, students, and the interested public can explore and read these collections freely online to consider a host of historical questions about the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.
One of the differences from traditional documentary editing, though, is our digital nature, which lets users see the original document next to each transcription and then easily explore connected documents based on a variety of tagging methods thanks to FromThePage's subject tagging feature. This ensures that the historical annotation process — which is so important for discovery, but which often doesn't begin until later in a project due to the time and labor involved — can take place during transcription creation or quality review.
Our Tagging Protocols help visitors narrow their use of the CWRGM collection to a particular county, a military campaign, the wartime experiences of the enslaved or military widows, and more.
From the moment we make these documents available on our Omeka-S based site, which will start happening in June 2021, users can organize their searches by events, organizations, places, people, and more.
FromThePage's subject tagging process also allows the team to attach modern phrasing to contemporary terms, including racial slurs, to help non-experts, such as students, learn appropriate wording while the original text is still preserved in the document.
I cannot overemphasize what this has provided CWRGM. FromThePage lets us annotate documents from the start, radically improving users ability to navigate and learn from the collection as soon as it is available online.
What would you tell folks considering a similar project?
If you are considering a digital documentary editing project like ours, partnerships are key. That includes finding experienced, supportive developers like Ben and Sara Brumfield who can help project directors manage large-scale transcription efforts.
Easily accessible and user-friendly for experts and non-experts alike with an engaged, accessible support team, FromThePage ensures that we are producing high-quality work at a steady pace.