Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Transcription Center?

The Transcription Center is a freely accessible website, where anyone interested can explore, transcribe, and review digitized historical collections from around the Smithsonian. Materials from the 15th century to the present day, held in the Smithsonian's libraries, archives, and museum departments, are available for transcription (with new projects being added each week). All transcribed and reviewed documents become text-searchable online, increasing the accessibility and discoverability of Smithsonian collections. Learn more about the history of the Transcription Center, instructions on how to transcribe and review, and more, by heading to our About page


Who can participate in Transcription Center? Is there an age requirement?

The Transcription Center invites anyone with a curious spirit, and access to a computer and the internet, to participate in our online projects. Anyone can transcribe anonymously, without creating a Transcription Center account. Creating an account (just head to "sign up" in the upper right menu bar of the home page), however, allows you to review other volunteer transcriptions and track your work and progress in TC. 

Please note that while all interested individouls are welcome in TC, volunteers must be at least 14 years or older. Individuals under 14 years of age must obtain parental consent before creating a Transcription Center account. This requirement complies with the Smithsonian Institution's Directive 208, regarding Smithsonian Volunteers. Please contact us for further information.


Why does transcription matter and how does it make a difference?

Transcription increase accessibility by making digitized materials more readable and searchable through Smithsonian’s online databases and other major search engines, such as Google. Within minutes of the completion (transcribed and reviewed) of a single page or entire project, the text within becomes text-searchable. 

See the example below of Alice Cunningham Fletcher correspondence from the National Anthropological Archives. Each catalog record of Fletcher's Papers in Collections Search Center (one of the Smithsonian's online databases) includes links to the transcribed content on Transcription Center (image 1), and clicking on the digitized image of her papers leads to a digital slideshow of the documents, including volunpeer-created transcriptions (on the left), and a search bar to explore the transcription by keyword (image 2).  



(image 1)


(image 2)


You can see specific examples of the major impact of transcription, by checking out our blog, Marginalia, and by searching the hashtags #TranscriptionImpact and #TCImpact on social media. Share your #TranscriptionImpact story too!


How do I get started? Do I have to register for an account?

Anyone with a computer and internet access is welcome to join in the transcription effort! No time committment or minimum amount of words transcribed is required; simply contribute when you'd like and for however long you'd like. Signing up for a Transcription Center account is not required to transcribe. Simply head to the list of ongoing projects, choose a page that needs transcription, and dive in! A Transcription Center account, however, allows you to not only transcribe, but also review other volunteers' transciptions and keep track of your progress. You can sign up by heading here, and entering in a username of your choice and an email address. Once registered, you'll receive an email confirmation with instructions on setting up your account and choosing your password. 




Are there instructions for transcribing and reviewing projects?

Yes, when transcribing and reviewing projects in the Transcription Center, please refer to the TIPS page, There you'll find links to General Instructions for all projects, along with Advanced Instructions for transcribing and reviewing more complicated materials. This page also contains community guidelines and additional information. 

You can also reach out with questions anytime at transcribe@si.edu. Another great way to get help with transcription work and learn new tips is to reach out to Smithsonian staff and your fellow volunpeers on TC social media accounts. Pro tip: search for - and use - the #volunpeer on social media to see updates and reach others working on transcriptions. 


Should all content on a page be transcribed, or just the information related to the collection its a part of?

ALL content on a page should be transcribed, even if it doesn't directly relate to the collection its from or to the individual the project is about. Transcribing every word on a page helps ensure that every bit of information - even minute details, advertisements, and more - is searchable and accessible for all interested researchers. One of the most amazing things about volunpeer Transcription Center work is that unexpected information is often uncovered. See this Twitter thread on ice cream-related finds in Smithsonian collections, unlocked thanks to transcription!


I need to keep track of my volunteer work in the Transcription Center, is this information saved? And if so, will the Smtihsonian validate my participation?

The system has the ability to track and report individual user’s activities by user ID.  This feature, called "MY WORK"  provides a report (on the webpage or as a downloadable PDF) on the number of pages you've transcribed or reviewed, along with times and dates.

To get your "MY WORK" Activity History report, you need to first Signup as a user.  Make sure you login each time before transcribing or reviewing any projects. The system does not track any user who has not logged in even if they have signed up and have a user ID.  To sign up for a user ID, click on the SIGNUP button on the upper right of the screen.  To login, click on the LOGIN button.

Next, click on the "MY WORK” button on the upper right of the screen. This "MY WORK” option will be on display after you have logged into the system. You will then be able to see how many pages you've transcribed and reviewed,  how many projects in total you have contributed to, and a dated list of individual project pages you've worked on. You can also narrow your results by selecting a specific time range. Click on the View or Download button to access your report as a pdf document.  Unfortunately, the Transcription Center team cannot officially validate or sign off on any volunteer service hours (there's simply too many amazing volunpeers to keep up with this!), but we do hope the downloadable "my work" report will suffice for reporting volunteer contributions. Please reach out to us at transcribe@si.edu with any questions.



I found a mistake in a completed transcription. Can it be reopened and fixed?

Absolutely! Another set of eyes may catch a mistake or error missed previously during transcription and review, and we count on volunpeers to point out these discoveries to us. This is one of the most amazing aspects of crowdsourced review. If you come across a mistake in a completed (and therefore locked) transcription page, let us know by emailing us the URL to that specific page. The Transcription Center team can then reopen the page for editing. You can also send us this information directly through the specific page, by clicking on the "Feedback" button (just be sure to include your email address in the feedback form so we can reply.)


Help! What happens if I make a mistake while transcribing or can't read a word in the document I'm working on?

Mistakes happen and that's part of the process; it's also why the crowd (in other words, the collaborative aspect of Transcription Center) is so important. If you miss a word or transcribe something incorrectly, this can be caught and fixed by your fellow volunpeers during the review process - or even later, as all transcriptions (even completed ones!) can be edited. You can also review instructions and tips anytime by going to our TIPS page directly, or by clicking on the "instructions" button on each project page. 

Keep in mind as well that you do not have to transcribe everything on your own. If you're unsure of a word, phrase, or even whole section of the page you can simply transcribe up to where you'd like to stop. Indicate the places in the text that you can't read by inserting [[?]]. This will signal to your fellow volunpeers that this page still needs editing, and what words still need to be deciphered.  Then click "SAVE" (as the page is still not quite complete). You can also leave notes for the TC team and other volunpeers in the "notes on transcribing this page" box, asking about an issue you had, or something in the page that needs a closer look. Remember, the goal for transcription is readability and accessibility, not perfection, and we all work together in the TC community to complete projects!


What do I do if the page or image isn't loading correctly or if I get locked out of my account?

Unfortuantely technical difficulties happen, womp womp. We want to do everything we can to fix these quickly, so please reach out to us when you encounter an issue by emailing us directly or by clicking on the FEEDBACK button. Including the URL to the page with the issue or taking a screenshot, is particularly helpful. This way we can look into what is causing the issue and/or reset your account. We also suggest logging out, clearning your browser history and cache, and then logging back in. Sometimes this does the trick. 


Why transcribe? Doesn't OCR (optical character recognition) make these materials text-searchable already?

Great question! There are a few answers to this. First, while we could get relatively accurate OCR-created transcriptions for pre-printed and typed materials, many others are handwritten or include changing formats, complex layouts, or fanciful fonts that make OCR accuracy nearly impossible and more often than not result in a machine-generated mess. Secondly, even the best transcriptions produced by OCR contain mistakes--often far more mistakes than are made by actual transcription volunteers. The most important reason we are not employing OCR, though, is that we're interested in learning more about the information locked away in our historical collections. By collaboratively transcribing these materials alonside interested volunpeers (like you!), we are able to identify previously unacknowledged individuals in the historical record, connect disparate collections, and enhance projects with additional contextual information---all things OCR can not provide. In short, the more we invite the public to help us enhance these digitized collections, the more #WeLearnTogether!


How can I find out more about the Smithsonian's archival, library, and museum collections?

Over 450,000 pages of Smithsonian digitized collections have been transcribed by Transcription Center volunteers. You can see them ALL here, and learn more about the collections and units each project is a part of, by clicking on the "catalog record" tab in the project summary. Dive deeper into the people, topics, and items behind TC projects, by exploring behind-the-scenes YouTube videos, TC social media accounts, and our blog post.

The Smithsonian's 19 museums, 9 research centers, and the National Zoo, also hold MANY more collections available for research that haven't yet made their way into TC -- from textual documents, to sound, video, and film recordings, to natural history specimens and cultural objects. Most of these materials have been catalogued -- and thus discoverable in Smithsonian online databases -- and some are digitized. To browse collections from around the Institution, visit the online database, Collections Search Center. 

You can find out more about individual materials, schedule a research visit, or ask a burning question, by clicking on the "contact info" tab on the left side of each catalog record (see image below). 

There are also other ways you can explore Smithsonian resources. Check out the Gallery pages (organized by repository, topic, theme, etc.) of digitized materials on Collections Search Center; and curate your own "collection" digitized resources for personal use, classroom curriculum, or professional research, in the Smithsonian Learning Lab (learn more about the Learning Lab on our educational resources page) .

Found something interesting while transcribing you'd like to share, have a question for our team, or just want to say hi? Reach out! We'd love to hear from you, feature your #TCDiscovery, or connect you with more information & experts. 


Can I use Transcription Center in the classroom or in my community organization?

Absolutely! We're always happy to collaborate with educators, organizations, and other interested parties, as we explore and enhance historical materials. Host a transcribe-a-thon, create lesson plans or exercises using Transcription Center projects, and/or browse our educational resources in the Smithsonian's Learning Lab. Send us a message to learn more or collaborate on a tailored project or event. 


What should I do if I come across material that is offensive, culturally sensitive, or otherwise problematic while transcribing or reviewing?

Content within digitized collections featured in the Transcription Center are historical, and therefore reflect the culture, language, and time, in which they were created. Because of this, some offensive language may be present, as well as descriptions of traumatic events or experiences. If you feel uncomfortable interacting with this content, you may choose not to participate, or participate on another project, or another page. If you come across content from your own culture or community that you feel is culturally sensitive and should not be shared widely online, please contact us, and we can direct you to the relevant Smithsonian organization for further information. 


Are there crowdsourcing or transcription projects at other libraries, museums, and cultural institutions?

Yes! Check out the amazing crowdsourcing projects from our neighbors and colleagues at the Library of Congress and the National Archives. There are MANY other amazing crowdsourcing projects as well. Search online for other opportunities or reach out to us directly for further information and ideas.