Happy February. I thought I’d write about how transcription in the classroom could counter the challenges ChapGPT introduces, but then I ran across this quote from James Baldwin and decided to ruminate on transcribing the difficult parts of history:
People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.
Perhaps you're faced with the stark history of injustice -- the abuse that people performed on other members of our society, sometimes for generations. Perhaps you're the descendant of the perpetrators (I am). Or perhaps you're the descendant of the victims. Perhaps your family arrived more recently in this land of hope and promise (mine, too) and weren’t direct participants.
Archivists who run these projects are being called upon to act as guides – almost as therapists -- and while there's a lot of great training out there, guiding folks through untrapping our history and then untrapping ourselves is hard.
So what can you do? I'm just a software engineer, but I do listen to the folks running these projects and have learned from them and thought about what to tell people.
Trust in the truth.
Ida B. Wells said, ““The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.” Of course, I believe in the power of primary sources to show some of that truth: the bureaucratic prison documents, the journals and letters of plantation owners; the documentation required to be free and black before emancipation.
Meet people where they are.
I know we want to open everyone's eyes to the horrors in our histories. But people have to be willing to listen. Show them the sources, encourage them to stay the course, and then stay out of their way. The breakthroughs will come in the shower, or lying in bed at night. They may take years.
Provide access to interpretation.
When historians use your archival records, invite them to speak. And then invite your transcribers to see the fruits of their labors. Volunteers are flattered to see their work used by professionals. And the interpretation will continue to open our eyes, to give us the understanding to stand up for the truth.
Handle racism in your sources.
Twice, staff at projects on FromThePage have contacted us because their texts have used racial slurs. One organization immediately hid their project because they didn't know what to do, and because one of their volunteers was offended. But let's unpack this a bit. The volunteer was offended by history–by the truth. I think if this was to happen again, I'd encourage them to acknowledge that truth to the volunteer; perhaps to put an acknowledgement in the footer that appears on every page of the project, but not to act out of fear.
Don't be afraid.
Untrapping our history and freeing us from it takes courage. It's hard. It's important. Keep doing what you're doing -- you're at the vanguard of a change that may seem to be happening too slowly, but is happening. If we keep working on it -- in ways like software or archival work that are comfortable to us, but also in ways that are outside of our comfort zone -- I believe that change will keep happening.