Guest Post: Megan Brett on the Papers of the War Department, 1784-1800

Today’s guest poster is Megan R. Brett. Brett is a doctoral student in History at George Mason University where her dissertation will focus on the challenges faced by early American diplomatic families stationed overseas. She is also a Digital History Associate at the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media.

Screen Shot 2014-11-10 at 5.11.52 PMThe Papers of the War Department, 1784-1800, is a rich resource, not only for its content but also as a community transcription project. Only a small percentage of the transcribers identify as educators or academics; what draws people to volunteer their time deciphering 18th century handwriting?

First, a little context. The Papers of the War Department is a digital documentary edition, started by Ted Crackel in 1989 and transferred to the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media in 2004. The object was to reconstitute the files of the War Department which were lost in a fire in November 1800 by bringing together sender, receiver, and letter book copies from archives in the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. Graduate students and staff, myself included, added metadata for sender, receiver, date, as well as basic documentary information, such as names and places mentioned. Such key information makes the documents discoverable on a basic level.

Full transcriptions of the documents, produced by our community of transcribers, make the documents more thoroughly discoverable. Although these transcriptions may not always be perfect, they add to the amount of information about the document included in the database, making its content that much more open to search – not only the site-based searched, but by search engines. Which documents are transcribed is largely up to the whim of the transcribers, although we do have a long page of nominated documents from which they can choose.

So, who are these transcribers? When they sign up for an account, we ask them to tell us why they want to participate, as well as their institutional affiliation, and roughly three-quarters have responded. Some of the responses are to the point (“for class”), and others have been multiple paragraphs detailing the person’s research interests. Sharon Leon, Director of Public Projects, combed through the first three years of responses and found six general categories of transcription volunteers:

  • those with a specific research interest, be it person, place, or company (34%);
  • genealogists and people engaged in genealogical research (29%);
  • general interest in the Early Republic (14%);
  • people who wanted to “give back” to the community or otherwise mentioned civic duty and community (10%);
  • people who were interested in the transcription system we use (Scripto) or crowdsourcing (8%)
  • teachers conducting or students completing a class assignment (6%)

There are a fair number of graduate students and academic historians in the “specific research interest” group, as well as some public historians working at sites which show up in the papers. What we did not initially expect was the number of historians, leaders, and members of American Indian tribes and nations who have decided to participate. Because of the scope of the early War Department, the Papers contain not only treaties but correspondence relating to treaty meetings, Indian factories in the southeastern United States, and managing relations between American Indians, US citizens, and Spanish and French colonists. Putting these documents online and not behind a paywall means that these communities can discover parts of their history which might otherwise have remained in the dark.

The individual motivations of the volunteers plays out in how they transcribe as well as what they transcribe. I suspect that the people who want to give back to “the community” are the ones who doggedly plow through the list of nominated documents, working from the top down one at a time. Others are clearly searching for an author or topic, working through every document their search results turn up. We have had a few transcribers research a question raised by the documents and get back to us using the “discuss this page” feature on the transcription pages.

For me, working with the transcribers is an excellent reminder that there are many audiences for early American history, public and academic, and that sometimes your audience may surprise you.

Have you transcribed a document for the Papers of the War Department or used its collections for your research? What do you think of the collection and the site?

One response

  1. Pingback: The Junto Enters the Terrible Twos! « The Junto


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