Wanna be a sleuth for the Smithsonian?
by Judy Elliott
August 24, 2014 04:00 AM | 1181 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Harrison Ford is a little long in the tooth to play “Indiana Jones,” but remember him in his strong jaw, rugged years — his leather jacket, the well-worn brown hat, the bullwhip?

Before he was tapped for greater glory, “Indiana Jones” was a fusty professor with the best library in movie history: Shelves of books, a brass magnifying glass, clear domes holding exotic plants and taxidermists’ best efforts, stuffed, glass-eyed animals on perches.

“Indiana Jones” raided the lost ark, leaving behind a room befitting a man of letters, a place of leather-bound tomes, their pages written in ink that could smear, protected by vellum.

Multiply his scholar’s collection by millions of pages and you have a glimpse of stored letters and diaries, of drawings of bumblebees and of journals, of research, dating from the 1700s, a treasure trove of paper, stored by the Smithsonian Institution.

The Smithsonian, realizing it would take a staff into retirement years to transcribe the wealth of paper reflections and drawings, to read the correspondence it protects, has opened an online transcription center, hoping to encourage volunteers, (that would be you and me), to help make documents more accessible for computer use.

This volunteer service is called “crowdsourcing,” a new term to me, but not to an online community needing solutions or information from a large group of people, giving their time to a project. An interesting example, an artist’s plea for pictures of sheep, brought to his website, from around the world, 10,000 drawings of sheep!

The Smithsonian does not need sketches of woolly animals, but a year ago, the organization sent out a request for volunteers to transcribe stored pages in their collection, and the response was so promising, (13,000 pages of documents transcribed), the public is now being asked to help transcribe more treasures, from notebooks of a Virginia birdwatcher to the deciphering of very small labels identifying 45,000 bumblebee specimens.

In transcribing collections in their original states, four volumes of the English dictionaries, published from 1906-l913, need help. One can only imagine how a greeting of “Good morning, Lord and Lady Grantham” became “How ya’ll doin’?”

If the weight of typing Civil War letters for future researchers and writers rests too heavily on our inexperienced shoulders, be assured there is a back-up plan. A volunteer’s version of the content of letters will be re-read by another volunteer and then read again by a Smithsonian staff member before being made available to the public.

Imagine reading letters, written and exchanged between the “Monuments Men,” part of the Smithsonian’s collection of written history. Then there’s the chance of looking over the shoulder of Horatio Hale, a member of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, circling the globe from 1838 to 1842.

Hale kept written notes on the expedition, capturing on paper the harsh truth of the slave trade bringing Africans to Brazil.

If reading old letters and diaries and helping to organize data on the life of bumblebees, (which matters because bees are becoming lost pollinators), sound like projects you’d enjoy, type in: transcription.si.edu, taking you to the Smithsonian Institution’s web site, then scroll to Browse Projects: Digital Volunteers.

If your computer is not happy with those directions, (and you never know), dial: (202) 633-5253, and talk to a nice guy who shepherds Smithsonian volunteers.

You’ll be in good company. Long before computers connected us by number to crowdsourcing, the compilers of the Oxford English Dictionary sent out a plea in the mid-1800s for volunteers to name all words they knew in the English language and give examples of how they were used.

Over the next 70 years, mailed from sea to shining sea, letters arrived with word lists, six million suggestions for dictionary entries.

Reading Civil War diaries, reliving the world of Greenland in 1860 as explorer, Charles Francis Hall, saw it is as close as most of us will come to channeling the adventures of “Indiana Jones”! No bullwhip will be required!

Judy Elliott lives and writes in Marietta.
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