Community Transcription-Twenty Three months In

March 28th, 2013

It’s been twenty-three months now since we opened the War Department archives to community transcription, and ever since then we have been steadily adding transcribers as well as finished documents to our archive. What started with just a dozen or so volunteers has grown into an active, vigorous community of volunteer transcribers.

We offer here yet another snapshot at our transcription activity.

As of this morning, we have 1,314 users-fully 227 them have transcribed within the last 90 days, which is just over 17%. This number continues to hold remarkably steady. Those volunteer transcribers have made 10,4623 saves to War Department documents, which is about 200 more than at the last update. That works out to 1,971 finished documents, along with another 45 documents begun. Additionally, transcribers have initiated 410 conversations using the “talk” feature. We also know that on average, each document is edited about three times before it is finished. Moreover, we have had 54,277 total page views.

By now we have an incredibly rich variety of folks transcribing, from retirees to journalists, from archivists to musicians,and from artists to genealogists. There are folks transcribing from every American state, and from six different continents. Transcribers also include teachers at every level of education, elementary to university. We have unaffiliated transcribers as well as those attached to institutions, ranging from major research universities to historical societies, and from the National Park Service to the Chickasaw. Among those that specify an interest or focus, those interests range from professional research, to family research, to classroom activities. Some of our transcribers had extensive experience with historical documents when they began; for others, this is their first encounter with two hundred-year old letters and handwriting. Many of our transcribers have only worked on a few documents, but we have a growing number of people who have transcribed dozens of them. Some of our transcribers have no particular interest in the War Department Papers, but are evaluating Scripto to use in their own projects.

The documents themselves vary widely in content. Many of them deal with pay for soldiers or officers. Others are transcripts of speeches or treaties. Some documents detail disciplinary action; there are supply lists and officers’ commissions, as well as intelligence or action reports.

As we continue forward with the project, users may still register for a transcription account.

Volunteer Spotlight-A Beginning Transcriber

March 21st, 2013

Even though there are more than 1300 transcribers signed up to work on documents at the Papers of the War Department, each transcriber is an individual. Some have only ever worked on one document, while some have transcribed dozens. We have not done this in several months, so today we turn to a short interview with one of our newest transcribers, user ddunnett, to learn a little more about his background and experiences with the Scripto/PWD project. Please stay tuned over coming weeks as we feature other transcribers and their work.

PWD: Can you briefly describe your background with respect to history and transcribing?

DD: I have never transcribed before. I personally find other people’s handwriting interesting, and I thought it would be fun to take a look at historical handwriting to see if I could read it.

PWD: How did you hear about Scripto?

DD: Someone I follow on Twitter mentioned it, so I searched for Scripto and found the War Department.

PWD: Did you find the tool easy to use?

DD: Yes. I found the handwriting more challenging than I expected, but the tool worked fine.

PWD: Were you surprised by anything you found in the papers?

DD: I have only transcribed two documents, but I did not expect the handwriting to be so difficult. Some words were spelled wrong, and there were many crossouts and mistakes.


It is not too late for you–there are many more documents awaiting transcription. Take a moment to register ( and choose a document to begin your adventure. You will be doing important work by adding to the historical record, and you never know what you will read!

The Embargo

March 19th, 2013

One of the strengths of the War Department’s papers are the opportunities they provide to learn about the international policies of the Early Republic. An insight on how leaders attempted to negotiate their place in the world as a new nation can be seen in one May 9, 1794 letter.

In 1793 war had broken out between England and revolutionary France. The United States was concerned about how this conflict would affect them. As a nation with a small military that is also physically isolated, the U.S. had used economic sanctions and embargos as a tactic to avoid direct war with Europe since the American Revolution. Some thought that this was the right approach in 1793. But not all agreed. Congressmen Fisher Ames of Massachusetts worried that this embargo would “not make our commerce better” while the “enemy… are not to be wounded in any way.”

Debate on the issue continued until 1794 when British actions pushed the American hand. English ships in the West Indies captured American vessels trading with French merchants there and the U.S. was forced to issue an embargo.

In this May 9 letter Secretary of War Henry Knox warns Governor of Virginia Henry Lee of incoming ships from Europe that would soon arrive at the ports in Norfolk, Virginia. Worried that the embargo may be breached, Knox encouraged Lee to make sure that the ships were turned back. However, he wanted to make sure that the Governor tread lightly in order to prevent the embargo from becoming a war.  Knox urged him to “take such prudent precautions for the prevention of misunderstandings as the delicate state of public affairs strongly requires.”

Luckily, any major problems in the Norfolk ports seem to have been avoided. The embargo would end with the Jay Treaty, which was signed in November of 1794, but did not take effect until February of 1796.  This treaty resolved many of the continuing problems remaining after the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which had ended the American Revolution, and ushered in a decade of peaceful trade between American and Britain.

View the Original Document Here:

Scripto User Spotlight-DIY History

March 13th, 2013

Today we bring you the first of several spotlights on a different sort of Scripto user. Before, we have featured individual transcribers who have devoted time to transcribing War Department documents. Here, though, we feature an institution that has implemented their own verison of the Scripto tool to power their own transcription project. The project is called DIY History, and is brought to us by the University of Iowa Libraries.

We recently sat down with two of the folks responsible for DIY History: Shawn Averkamp, Data Services Librarian; and Jennifer Wolfe, Metadata Librarian, to talk about DIY History, Scripto, and crowdsourcing.

How did you get started using Scripto?

Shawn Averkamp: “Well, it really began with the Civil War Diaries and Letters Transcription Project. Within eighteen months, volunteer contributors transcribed something like 15,000 pages. So with the diaries and letters nearly completed, we expanded to include transcription opportunities for other handwritten materials; DIY History was launched in October of 2012.”

And what were your goals going into the project?

SA: “The main goal, as with most crowdsourcing projects, was to make historic artifacts more accessible. We wanted to be able to handle the records better—for example, making them more easily searchable; but also  by asking the public to interact with the materials in new ways. Another example:  texts can be scanned with OCR (optical character recognition) add full text searchability, you can’t do that other primary source materials like handwritten documents or photographs. To make the documents usable requires time and money—paying people to transcribe or describe each item; and anyway that that doesn’t scale with traditional library workflows. By asking volunteers to do this and attaching their contributions to the artifacts in our digital library, users can search on this added text to more quickly and easily find what they’re looking for.

What did you have to do to make Scripto work for you? And were there any technical challenges?

Jennifer Wolfe: “To run its crowdsourcing project, DIY History uses Omeka and Scripto. We are using Omeka as our content management system. We pretty much use Scripto right out of the box, with some minor tweaking. Which we did in-house, by the way. Scripto allows us oversight of all these transcriptions with a modest staff of editors. We really try not to do much editing—most transcriptions remain pretty much as our transcribers finish them.”

Are there challenges you did not anticipate?

SA: “We face some of the same challenges any crowdsourcing project would face—formatting, for example. Many of our transcribers feel it is important to reproduce the actual look of the documents, and that is sometimes hard to do. We would rather they focus on the content and not so much the appearance.”

JW: “Scaling was another consideration. Our project includes many more primary sources than some do, and we needed to be able to deal with materials from several collections. The sheer number of items, hundreds of thousands, means that we needed an efficient workflow.

With more than 30,000 finished transcriptions, DIY History continues to be an example of what crowdsourcing can do. Take a few dedicated volunteers and some tools, and you can empower them in new ways.


Canadian Refugees

March 7th, 2013

In April, 1798, United States Congress passed “An Act for the relief of the refugees from the British Provinces of Canada and Nova Scotia.” Under the Act, the Secretary of War was required to advertise its terms and review all claims submitted. Who were these refugees? Why was their welfare the responsibility of the Secretary of War?

Just as there were some people in the colonies who remained loyal to the British Crown, there were people in Canada and Nova Scotia who supported the Continental Congress’ claim of independence. These people aided the Continental Army in Canada by providing food or shelter or by enlisting. Many of them then had to leave their homes when the British retook the area during the war, and those who made it to the United States often stayed until the end of the war and beyond. They lost their homes, their property, and sometimes their businesses. These were the refugees of the Act, and it was the intention of Congress to compensate them for their losses with grants of land.

Claims had to be supported by statements sworn before a judge or justice of the peace. While all that seems to have been required was a statement by the claimant, many also included supporting statements from family, friends, and former or present neighbors. For example, John McGown supported his claim with statements from a fellow soldier as well as justices of the peace from his former home in Amherst County, Nova Scotia. McGown himself submitted a supporting statement for the claim of Lewis Frederick Delesdernier, who was seeking compensation for himself, his parents, and his deceased brother.

By early May, 1800, the Secretary of War had received 73 claims, of which only 18 were disallowed. The smallest awards were 100 acre per person; Martha Walker, widow, and Edgar and Seth Harding received the largest awards at 2,240 acres each. Both John McGown and Frederick Delesdernier were granted 960 acres.