Vol­un­teers en­sure yes­ter­day’s slav­ery is re­mem­bered

Chattanooga Times Free Press - - NATION - BY MARK PRATT

BOS­TON — Vol­un­teer co­or­di­na­tors, take heart. More than 2,000 peo­ple around the world raised their hands when the Bos­ton Pub­lic Li­brary put out a call for help to tran­scribe its ex­ten­sive, un­search­able and largely il­leg­i­ble col­lec­tion of old anti-slav­ery doc­u­ments.

Through a web­site on the crowd­sourc­ing re­search por­tal Zooni­verse, the li­brary re­cruited an army to make 12,000 pieces of cor­re­spon­dence writ­ten by some of the most prom­i­nent New Eng­land abo­li­tion­ists of the era ac­ces­si­ble to re­searchers and the gen­eral pub­lic.

“The col­lec­tion is an amaz­ing glimpse into how a mo­ti­vated com­mu­nity of ac­tivists can change the course of his­tory,” said Tom Blake, the li­brary’s con­tent dis­cov­ery man­ager.

The goal of the project launched a month ago is to make the doc­u­ments search­able and there­fore eas­ier to read and re­search. So why give the task to vol­un­teers?

For two rea­sons, Blake said. First of all, us­ing the li­brary’s cur­rent staff, or hir­ing some­one to tran­scribe the let­ters, would have been too time-con­sum­ing and ex­pen­sive.

But the other rea­son was to en­gage peo­ple with the li­brary.

“It’s a way for the pub­lic to be­come part of the li­brary — not just con­sumers of li­brary ma­te­ri­als but ac­tual cre­ators and par­tic­i­pants,” he said.

More than 2,200 peo­ple have al­ready signed up to help, and not just from New Eng­land.

David Kamin­ski, a high school English teacher from Ny­ack, N.Y., has been in­volved in sev­eral sim­i­lar tran­scrip­tion projects, but said the Bos­ton project is spe­cial.

“This project is par­tic­u­larly in­ter­est­ing be­cause these peo­ple were in­volved in some­thing so pow­er­ful and im­por­tant,” he said. “You can re­ally hear their voices, the emo­tions of the writ­ers com­ing through.”

Much of the col­lec­tion was donated to the li­brary in the late 1890s by the fam­ily of prom­i­nent abo­li­tion­ist William Lloyd Gar­ri­son. His do­na­tion, in turn, in­spired oth­ers closely in­volved in the move­ment to do­nate their cor­re­spon­dence. The ma­te­rial dates from 1832 un­til just af­ter the Civil War and the Eman­ci­pa­tion Procla­ma­tion.

Tran­scrib­ing the doc­u­ments isn’t easy. The hand­writ­ten let­ters are some­times dif­fi­cult to read and of­ten use ar­chaic lan­guage.

“At that time, a lot of peo­ple had re­ally bad hand­writ­ing,” said Kathy Grif­fin, an ar­chiv­ist with the Mas­sachusetts His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety.

To en­sure the tran­scrip­tions are as ac­cu­rate as pos­si­ble, three peo­ple must tran­scribe a text in ex­actly the same way be­fore it is con­sid­ered fin­ished.

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