Insights & Tips from a Volunpeer Expert: Transcription Review

This blog post was written before our General Instructions were revised in 2019. Updates have been made to reflect current guidance on Transcription and Review, as of November 10, 2021.


Make a Lasting Difference: Become a Volunteer Transcription Reviewer

A local charitable organization I once proofread for had the slogan “Make a Lasting Difference.” I often reflect on these words as I review Smithsonian Institution Transcription Center documents. The work we do at the Smithsonian will enable future researchers to learn a great deal more about our collective history – and, in the case of my volunteer “home” at the Freedmen’s Bureau Papers, will help genealogists connect with their formerly enslaved ancestors. Our work really does make a lasting difference.



If, like me, you pride yourself on your attention to detail, love to find and fix other folks’ mistakes, and enjoy trying to make sense of history, volunteer transcription reviewing just might be for you.

The Difference Between Transcribing and Reviewing

Volunteer transcribers create online versions of primary source documents by carefully typing what they read so that the originals become more accessible and searchable.

Reviewers then edit these transcription “first drafts,” comparing them to the originals and tweaking them if necessary, before marking the work as complete.

Because my typing skills are limited, I’m not an effective transcriptionist. However, my professional background in research and proofreading makes me an excellent reviewer – and I love the work that I do. I revel in exploring long-ago stories and uncovering little details. I also get the daily opportunity to learn more about my country’s history, and particularly about Reconstruction. Over the past few years I’ve fine-tuned the way I go about reviewing, and I’ve been asked to share some of my process with you.

Getting Ready to Work

Before beginning a day’s work, review SI reviewing guidelines here and here.

To save time and prevent frustration, keep the necessary resources handy to help you do your work. For example, here’s some of what I have at my desk for my Freedmen’s Bureau work:

  • Coffee
  • Pencil and legal pad to jot down anything unusual or unfamiliar while reviewing
  • “Cheat Sheet” (If you often work on the same project, keeping a running list of unusual names and terms can save lots of time. I’ll share my thoughts on creating this personal style sheet in another blog post.)
  • Smithsonian-provided project-specific resources
  • Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary
  • National Park Service’s Soldiers and Sailors Database
  • The North Carolina Gazetteer and other reliable online references I’ve bookmarked
  • SI Transcription Center search tool – truly the Smithsonian’s best-kept secret! Use it to confirm such things as unusual surnames.


Mindful Reviewing

  • Assume that mistakes have been made during the transcription process. (Nobody’s perfect.) Get out your virtual red pen and get ready to mark things up!
  • Take your time. Don’t rush the process; it’s not a race, and there’s more than enough work to keep us all busy for a long time to come. (Heck, in the Freedmen’s Bureau Project we’ve been working on records from just the state of North Carolina for the last two years!)
  • Prior to starting a page, read any notes that appear in the “Notes on Transcribing this page” field at the bottom right of the screen. Other transcribers may have included helpful tidbits there.



  • Double-bracketed tags usually come in pairs. If you see an opening tag (such as [[strikethrough]]), make sure that there’s also a closing tag ([[/strikethrough]]). Learn more about how to use double brackets here.
  • As you review, keep in mind what Hippocrates said: “First, do no harm.” Beware of introducing new mistakes in your zeal to fix things.
  • Read the original document word for word and punctuation mark for punctuation mark while comparing it to its transcription. I use my cursor to follow along in the original document as I read and, believe it or not, I often read out loud, even naming each punctuation mark as it goes by. (My family has learned to ignore my mutterings.)
  • Resist the temptation to improve the spelling or punctuation of the original document. The long-ago writer might have been rushed or careless or – in the case of authors of some of the Freedmen’s Bureau documents – only semi-literate. Preserve original spelling and sentence structure. (Consider, however, flagging “extra-special” usage in the Notes field for the benefit of other transcribers.)


  • Ask yourself, does what I’m reading look right? Does it make sense? If a phrase seems out of place, it might not have been transcribed correctly. Think more about what might be going on in the original document and flag anything that seems “off” in the notes field. (I’m always especially on the lookout for unusual names.) As you get more familiar with reviewing particular projects, you’ll develop an “ear” for the language used.
  • Consider reading through longer documents twice before either marking the transcription as complete or bumping it back for further review. Often, I’ll read through a transcription (noting anything hinky on my trusty legal pad), take a break, and then come back to the computer to look things over one more time before completing my work on that page.
  • Take frequent breaks. I get up from my computer every 15 minutes or so to walk around (and to get more coffee!). Remember, your eyes need rest from the close reading you’ve been doing.
  • Take advantage of SI tools. For example, don’t forget about the handy zoom tool:

  • Use it to get up close and personal with hard-to-read handwriting. (After you’ve completed your review, though, make sure to zoom back out and take a quick look at the entire page to ensure material at the very top and bottom of the original document appears in the transcription.)
  • Reach out to SI staff with the Feedback tool if you need clarification on anything. (Just click the tab to the left of the page you’re working on.) If you have a question, chances are other transcribers and reviewers have wondered the same thing, but have been too shy to ask.

Do Your Best – And Then Let It Go

Remember that, at the end of the day, our job is to provide simple access so that researchers can find what they want and then do their own work with the original documents. Our goal is to provide easy-to-read, searchable documents. Do your best and then move on.
How do you transcribe and review documents? Comment on your process below. Remember, #WeAllLearnTogether.

Learn more about the Freedmen’s Bureau Papers here.

---The label "lifelong learner" describes Beth Graham best. She thrives on new challenges, and has held positions as varied as children's librarian, advertising agency proofreader, crochet pattern designer, and Crafty/Bluprint Instructor. Currently, Beth keeps busy by volunteering on       the Freedmen's Bureau Project in the Smithsonian Transcription Center, knitting ever more socks for her overflowing sock drawer, and playing clarinet in the local New Horizons band. A native of California, Beth lives in Ontario, Canada.

* This is the first post in a series of blog posts from long-time volunpeer Beth Graham. While transcribing and reviewing over 4,000 pages of TC projects, Beth has gained insight & knowledge, and uncovered fascinating historical details. Follow along in this series to learn from Beth as she shares her personal motivations, expert tips, and transcription discoveries! *