Polishing Old Wood: Reflections on Transcribing Archival Records

Polishing Old Wood: Reflections on Transcribing Archival Records

In honor of Volunteer Appreciation Month, we are very pleased to be sharing volunpeer perspectives and experiences here on the blog. In this post, high school student Lauren Bartel reflects on why transcribing has been so important to her during the pandemic. If you have a story you’d like to share on Marginalia, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at transcribe@si.edu.



I am so grateful to have been a Smithsonian Digital Volunteer this past year. The experience has allowed me to contribute, in a small way, to the Smithsonian Museums’ collection, curation efforts, and exhibits. It has been personally rewarding, as I have been working to build my skills in document examination while increasing accessibility to biodiversity data and historical documents. 



A page from naturalist Vernon Orlando Bailey’s field notes from New Mexico and Arizona, 1908, Smithsonian Institution Archives. 



When COVID struck and we suddenly moved to a socially-distanced world nearly a year ago, with remote school and remote just about everything, one of the lifestyle challenges for many was being able to find outlets and opportunities to stay engaged, to learn more, and contribute—to feel part of society-at-large. For me, life science and social science have always been of immense academic and personal interest, in and out of the classroom as a high school student. I also enjoy and genuinely appreciate museum curation and its role in preserving and protecting history in every endeavor.  


Although I was able to pivot many of my collaborative in-person volunteer leadership and service projects I had been involved in before COVID from in-person to online and isolated activities, I found I had some more time to try new things. So, I read about the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers program and the Transcription Center. I became a trained Smithsonian volunteer and began to help transcribe field notes, diaries, manuscripts, and biodiversity specimen labels, all from my computer. It was wonderful. Although some might find this kind of detail work to be tedious, I felt like I was helping to renew and refresh the work of scientists, ecologists, and historical figures, as if I were polishing old wood and allowing others to see its import. For the past year, I have spent a lot of time on Smithsonian collection materials, and it remains a great way to help the finest museum in the world fully utilize its collection for the public benefit. Thank you, Smithsonian, for letting me be an active volunteer.  





Lauren Bartel is a high school junior at Gulliver Preparatory School in Miami, Florida. She has been a Smithsonian Transcription Center digital volunteer for almost exactly one year.