A Beginner's Guide to Transcribing Our Archives

Let’s be honest: social distancing comes naturally to some of us.

Yet it’s still hard to imagine going without access to the Newberry collections for the foreseeable future. Luckily, you don’t have to: there are ways to continue engaging with our collections from a safe, digitally mediated distance. One way is through Newberry Transcribe.

Newberry Transcribe is a digital transcription site that allows you to view and transcribe over 50,000 pages of letters and diaries from our archival collections. Ranging from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries, these manuscripts include business records of Revolutionary-era army suppliers, descriptions of life by nineteenth-century midwestern settlers, diary accounts of the 1893 World Fair, letters by authors like Willa Cather, and much more.

Not only can you peruse thousands of high-quality digital reproductions of fascinating primary sources, but you can also contribute to our collective understanding of American history by helping us transcribe them.

Getting started on the site is simple. On the homepage, you can search the site’s manuscripts by decade or by language, or you can search by selecting a category of item—e.g., “Women,” “the Civil War,” “Travelers’ Writings,” and “Diaries.” Alternatively, you can freely scroll through the manuscripts until you find one you like.

Once you’ve selected a manuscript you’d like to transcribe, you’ll be brought to a page displaying the item. Any pages that have been transcribed will be marked “In Progress/Needs Review.”

To get started transcribing a fresh page, scroll down until you find a page marked “Not Transcribed.”

After selecting an un-transcribed page, you’ll be directed to a new page displaying an image viewer and a text box beneath it. You can zoom in and out and move the document page around using tools in the upper left corner of the viewer.

Once you can make out the words on the page, put your cursor into the text box and begin typing what you see.

Save your work frequently by clicking the “Save Transcription” button below the text box.

One of the great things about Newberry Transcribe is that it’s collaborative: different transcribers can work on the same page together, editing and revising each other’s work. To add your own edits to a page that’s already been started, select one of the pages labeled “In Progress /Needs Review” and make your edits.

If you’d like, you may create an account to keep a record of the pages you’ve transcribed. Having an account also enables you to keep track of other users’ changes to the pages you’ve worked on. (To create your own account, navigate to a page image belonging to any manuscript and click the “Create an account” button above the image. This will redirect you to a new page where you can follow the instructions to create an account.)

Transcribing these manuscripts has many benefits. For one thing, when you transcribe, you’re supporting future scholarship. We include searchable transcriptions in our digital collections, so that researchers can find relevant manuscript materials through keyword searches. Someone looking for nineteenth-century accounts of, say, quarantine practices can search for “quarantine” and find the letter you just transcribed.

Transcription is also fascinating in itself. It lets you satisfy that universal human desire to peer into other people’s lives and read about their hopes, fears, and confessions (and all guilt-free!).

Finally, by joining the site, you’ll contribute to our community of learning. In so doing, you’ll help ensure that the Newberry remains what it has always been: a vital place for sharing stories that bridge the past and present and deepen our understanding of who we are.