March 20, 2012

Opportunities for Amateur Historians

We romanticize the job of historians. We imagine them as erudite, old men, bent over old tomes with hair disheveled and glasses firmly in place. We see them in their book lined study.  Each page they turn, they are piecing together the clues to a puzzle lost in time.  They touch documents that are of such significance that your hands would shake under the importance of them.  

I’m sure this kind of historian exists, somewhere. Regardless of the image of the “classic” historian, few historians fit the picture.  Most deal with the writings of everyday people who wrote about ordinary things. Many historians never touch important documents; they study them on the computer or as photocopies.  But these “ordinary” writings are just as important to the study of history.  

The digitization of documents has been a major advancement in the history field. It has not only opened up the history field for historians but also for amateur historians. What once required detailed planning, far away museum visits, phone calls,  and hours of searching can now be done instantaneously at any time of day from the comfort of your own home. Historians are more average than ever.

Many museums have many more documents in their collections than they can afford to digitize and transcribe, so many resources remain unavailable to researchers. Many museums are now soliciting the help of nonprofessionals to transcribe these digitized works for the ease of researchers.

If the thought of digitizing documents on Friday night excites you, you can now do so for the only slightly lower than normal pay for a transcriber: free. :D

Projects that need help:

-William & Mary's Transcription Project: "From Fights to Rights: The Long Road to a More Perfect Union," where transcribers work on documents from the Civil War Era up through the Civil Rights Movement.

-The National Archives' "Citizen Archivist" project where transcribers can choose documents of varying transcription levels from beginner to Advanced.Visit here for more transcription projects from the National Archives.

-The University of Iowa's "Civil War Diaries & Letters Transcription Project."


  1. Ah yes. Hopefully I will be an amateur historian when I write my historical fiction. :)

  2. Yeah, that's me: Friday night digitizer...

    Sounds like these institutions are taking their cue from Jeff Howe's Crowdsourcing or Clay Shirky's Cognitive Surplus. Great idea.

    Loved your "slightly lower than normal pay" comment. :P

    1. :D

      I hope that crowdsourcing can alleviate some of the funding problems many smaller museums and archives have.

      Many people are wondering if it is fair to use crowd sourcing as it reduces the job of professional archivists.

  3. I have been slowly digitizing all of my original family history documents. I've also digitized about a quarter of our local historical society's old photos. I hope to continue as time allows.
    A fine and thoughtful post!

    1. I am always digitizing my family stuff. There will definitely be no lack of photos in the future! It's great that digitization can provide back up in case something were to happen.


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