Bringing the Archive to You

Thanks to the support of donors like you, the Newberry is able to build and maintain dozens of interactive digital resources, all available for free on our website.

These resources provide access to more than one million digitized images of Newberry collection items and encourage users to engage with our collection in personal and innovative ways. Midwest Time Machine offers a virtual journey into the past through the eyes of nine people represented in our collections; Chicago Ancestors helps viewers discover the history of the very ground they are standing on; and the e-Postcard Sender offers a way to say a friendly hello with our Teich Postcard Collection. (Make sure to check out these resources in the links at the end of this article.)

At the heart of these engagement efforts lies a team at the Newberry you might not be familiar with—Digital Initiatives and Services (DIS). This team is the mastermind behind the library’s digital resources, including Newberry Transcribe, a digital crowdsourcing tool that lets anyone, anywhere, turn the handwritten documents housed at 60 West Walton into searchable digital resources.

Newberry Transcribe evolved from a 2013 initiative entitled Civil War in Letters. For this project the DIS team digitized 550 letters written by Union soldiers from Illinois, and invited the public to read and transcribe them online. Within a year, every single letter on the website had been transcribed.

The resulting transcriptions provide valuable insight into soldiers’ everyday lives and northerners’ perspectives of the war, as well as previously unknown details about the battles themselves. Many letters contain soldiers’ firsthand reactions to events that historians now identify as crucial moments of the war, such as this report of the Second Battle of Murfreesboro found in a letter sent by private Edward W. Curtis of the 88th Illinois Infantry to his aunt:

Up to this time (2 or 3 p.m. [January] 1st) there is nothing certain, to my mind, in the rumors in camp, the latest being that our army is falling back; that my division commander (Gen. Sheridan) is mortally wounded; that our brigade commander (Gen. Sill) is killed; and that our division is entirely out to pieces; & although not certain, I am inclined to think that if not worsted, our men are having a severe fight, as we have heard cannonading all day. Gen. McCook is also reported killed.”

Other letters are achingly personal. Two years into the war and far from home, Charles W. Gallentine of the 7th Illinois Cavalry wrote his sister asking for mundane details of daily life at home:

The next time you write, report to me your prospects for fruit this fall, such as potatoes, apples, peaches, pears, plums, grapes and cabbages. Is old [D]an alive yet, if so does he ware [sic] specks[?] Is the front fence painted[?]

Manuscripts like these are unique windows into the past. But their singularity can make them difficult to find and access. After all, there’s only one of each. Factor in sloppy handwriting, water stains, and general wear-and-tear, and researchers face a wall of obstacles before they’ve even begun.

Transcription crowdsourcing speeds up the research process by making large parts of the archive legible. The Newberry takes this a step further by making the transcriptions freely accessible and easily searchable. Civil War in Letters was among the first transcription crowdsourcing projects enacted by a major library, and it was a major success.

The online volunteers who joined in this effort included not only students and scholars interested in the letters, but also people who hadn’t even realized such primary sources existed. Transcription encourages in-depth archival engagement without requiring a preexisting research interest or sustained research project. Each manuscript page is a puzzle that, when solved, brings a voice from the past into conversation with the present. And with transcription crowdsourcing tools, these archival puzzles can be solved on lunch breaks and commuter trains as much as in the Newberry’s reading rooms.

After the success of Civil War in Letters, the DIS team spent the next several years developing a plan for further large transcription projects that would maximize impact while using library resources efficiently. In 2017, the Newberry launched two websites: Transcribing Modern Manuscripts, which contained more than 30,000 letters and diaries written post-1700, and Transcribing Faith, a smaller project that tied into the Newberry’s Fall 2017 exhibition Religious Change and Print, 1450-1700. Visitors suddenly had digital access to 550 years of handwritten primary sources online.

Once again, these crowdsourcing projects were a resounding success and, in the case of one item, led to viral fame.

Visitors to the Transcribing Faith site discovered the Newberry’s so-called “Book of Magical Charms,” containing 117 pages of puzzling, painfully dense handwriting. As transcribers soon found, that handwriting details step-by-step directions for spells for everything from curing a toothache to predicting which newlywed spouse is destined to die first.

It was a hit—the cloth-bound manuscript was featured in stories by the Chicago Tribune, Smithsonian, and New York Post. Within six months, the entire book had been transcribed, with several thousand individuals contributing, and the digitized item had been viewed 300,000 times.

Plus, a likely author had been identified. Renae Satterley of London’s Middle Temple Library was able to discern the distinctive handwriting of Robert Ashley, a sixteenth-century London lawyer, in a digitized page she was transcribing.

As of 2019, all of these smaller projects are part of Newberry Transcribe. Over 18,000 pages have been transcribed so far, and more are being completed every day. That’s thousands of primary sources made legible. More importantly, it’s also thousands of moments of profound engagement with the Newberry collection by scholars, grad students, and even high school history students. Newberry Transcribe lets people around the world engage with primary sources in a way that might otherwise be impossible.

The library preserves more than five million manuscript pages in its collection. Our staff could never hope to transcribe this number alone, but thanks to you, we don’t have to. Your support makes projects like Newberry Transcribe possible and sets the stage for all the discoveries and sheer fun that come of them.

In Spring 2020, the DIS team at the Newberry will launch a new and improved transcription platform and add thousands more manuscripts, including postcards, broadsides, and theater playbills. They’ll also develop and release more K-12 educational resources that make use of the materials transcribed by online volunteers. But for now, explore and share the links below to experience how you’ve helped people around the world engage with the archive.

Start your own transcription journey with Newberry Transcribe.

Travel into the past with Midwest Time Machine, an interactive website that uses documents transcribed at Newberry Transcribe.

Explore Chicago history with Chicago Ancestors, a searchable database that contains rich details about the city’s 77 community areas and much more.

Say a friendly hello with the e-Postcard Sender, which draws from the library’s Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection.

View a digitized copy of the “Book of Magical Charms” and examine the searchable metadata it generated.

Search thousands of handwritten pages transcribed by online volunteers.

This story is part of the Newberry’s Donor Digest, Winter 2020. In this newsletter the Newberry shares with its donors exciting stories of the success and innovation made possible by their generosity. Learn more about supporting the library and its programs.