Instructions for the Transcription Center

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How the Process Works


How the Process Works

We seek to balance quality and speed with our transcription process - which of course is still evolving as we continue to develop this service. At the moment, this is how our system works:

1) Anyone can start transcribing or add to a transcription of a document.

2) Once a volunteer decides they’ve “finished” and they’re ready for review, a different volunteer (who must have an account on the site) can review the transcription and either send it back for edits or complete the transcription.

3) The finished transcript is sent to the Smithsonian, where it may be used immediately, or undergo additional work.

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How To Transcribe 


Type what you see

Our main goal is to create text that mirrors this document. Write down words and paragraphs as you see them. Keep words in their original spelling, even if it is spelled incorrectly. You may include the correct spelling in double brackets next to the incorrectly spelled word. Ex: Abigale Adams [[Abigail Adams]]. One exception: if a word is hyphenated because it goes across two lines, type it out as one word. See example page.


Don’t worry about formatting

Keep it simple.  You don’t have to indicate font style, or bolded or italicized text. Our goal is to improve readability and searchability and we want to avoid cluttering the pages.  Generally you don't have to worry about accent marks or special characters, but since every project is different, please read the project description before you get started. Also pay attention to any notes left on a transcription page. See example page. There are special instructions for struck out words and marginalia (additional notes, etc. on the document), which you can find in the advanced instructions.

It’s ok if you don’t have time to complete the entire transcription. Even adding a sentence or two makes it easier for the next person to work on it. Often two or more volunteers need to work together to finish a transcription. Every bit helps.

Save frequently

Transcription can be hard work, so make sure you save frequently (every couple of minutes). Click the [Save] button located below the transcription form to save your progress. Remember that no one can edit a page if you are working on it (you should see "Locked" in yellow on your upper right screen). If you want to move on, you can click the orange [Complete & Mark for Review] button or [Save] and use the navigation buttons above the transcription field to change pages. The system will release your page to others to edit if you have not click on any buttons ([Save] or [Complete & Mark for Review] ) for 5-10 minutes. So, save frequently to keep the page to yourself if you are still working on it.

If you find a word you can’t quite read

Please make a note using double brackets [[ ]] like this: [[good guess?]] or simply [[?]]. Save your work and you can continue transcribing the rest of the item.

Navigating a Project

Did you leave a project on a certain page or want to move forward or backward in the project? You can use the [Go To Page] feature on the project page - located near the project summary - or you can navigate using [Go To Page] on the transcription asset page. On the transcription page, you’ll find the [Go To Page] box above the transcription field, next to the [Home] button.

If you aren’t sure, use your best judgment

One of the reasons this project is so exciting is that we’re not entirely sure what you’ll find in our collections. As you explore through our many historic documents and scientific labels, just do your best to make the transcription useful. You can contact us or use the [feedback] tab on the side if you have a specific question you’d like help with.

Marking For Review

Please only hit the orange "COMPLETE and MARK FOR REVIEW" button when the ENTIRE page has been transcribed. You are welcome to simply transcribe a single word, sentence, or the whole page, but if the page is not completely transcribed, please only hit SAVE so other volunteers know there is still transcription work to be done.


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How To Review 


When a volunteer completes a transcription and marks it for review, it’s good to get a second pair of eyes on it. Here’s how to review a transcription:

  • As a reviewer, you must have an account on the Transcription Center, which you can create here.
  • Be sure to read through the General and Advanced instructions so you can identify mistakes in the transcription. Review the document for accuracy and completeness.
  • Read the entire transcription and carefully compare it against the original text.


If the transcription is complete and ready:

  • Click the [Mark as Complete] button. The item will be marked “Completed” and await Smithsonian approval.


If you feel there are errors that need to be corrected:

  • Click the [Reopen for Editing] button.


  • Then you can modify the transcription to match the page. Remember to avoid editing the original spelling and grammar.


  • After you have made your changes, Click the [Complete and Mark for Review] button - then it will require a new volunteer to review.


If you come across a "COMPLETE and PENDING APPROVAL" project that contains errors and needs further editing, you can reach out the TC team by clicking on the "feedback button" on the side of each project page, or emailing us directly at Be sure to include the URL link for the page in question, and the TC team will respond by reopening the page for transcription and review.


For further tips on reviewing, check out volunpeer Beth Graham's post about her process.


Keep it Simple

Minimize the use of double brackets [[ ]] to describe what you see, think about readability and searchability.  For math or columned format, avoid using the double brackets as much as possible.  See example page. Don't worry about denoting superscript numbers, dates, or words, such as 2nd, or McDonald, which include special characters or ^ symbols. They should simply be written as McDonald, regardless of any superscript written in the original text. 



When you see a sketch or picture on the page, please use the word “image” placed in double brackets: [[image]]. You may also describe the image within the double brackets, if you would like. Ex: [[image – bird with long beak and blue chest]], but this is optional, and not required. See example page. Please be aware as well, that some images include descriptions on the back of the photograph, displayed in the succeeding transcription image. Be sure to check this. If this is the case, please indicate that an image description exists on the following page. Ex: [[image--see next page for caption]]. See example page


Insertions Made in the Original Text

If you come across a word that has been inserted into a sentence or phrase in the original text, please note it using brackets: 

[[insertion]] word inserted [[/insertion]]

You can also indicate a carrot symbol (^) if this is written in the text. For example: "the craggy rocks ^ [[insertion]] were [[/insertion]] sharply cutting." You may also refer to this example page


Special Characters

It is more challenging to key in special characters, so we ask you not to worry too much about them, just do the best you can. However, when one is able to produce the special characters, we welcome them. As long as the characters look right, we can leave them in place during review. See example page.


If you're feeling adventurous, here's a list of shortcuts for of some of the most frequently encountered special characters (for PCs):


ç - Alt 1159
ü - Alt 1153
ñ - Alt 164
á - Alt 0225
é - Alt 130
è - Alt 138
¢ - Alt 0162
— (em dash) - Alt 0151


Underline / Strikethrough

Please write strikethrough or underlined, when appropriate, in double brackets before and after the word or phrase that has been struck out or underlined. Like this:


I really [[strikethrough]] hate [[/strikethrough]] don’t like the smell of rotten eggs. See example page.


Ditto Marks 

When you encounter ditto marks " within a page, please transcribe by typing out the ditto mark and then explaining what the ditto refers to in double brackets. 

For example, if two lines in the text read:

April 1

Please transcribe them as: 
April 1

" [[ditto for April 1]] 

See example page

If there are multiple ditto marks you may either list all the ditto marks together and then include the corresponding bracketed information as separate entries, such as the example below: (can also refer to example page)

1799 Linwood Hill, July 9, 1888 Datana
1800 " " " " [[ditto for Linwood]] [[ditto for Hill]] [[ditto for July 9]] [[ditto for 1888]]


OR you can list it as one bracketed etnry: 

1799 Linwood Hill, July 9, 1888 Datana
1800 " " " " [[ditto for Linwood, ditto for Hill, ditto for July 9, ditto for 1888]]

As long as it is clear to the reader what the ditto marks refer to, the separate or together brackets are up to you.


Transcribing Tables

Many transcription projects with tables include special instructions, so make sure to check before beginning a project. 

In general, however, when transcribing a project with tables, please demarcate between cells in the table by using a vertical bar/pipe (|). Use this only to mark transitions left-to-right. No special mark is necessary for line breaks or new rows. Please include empty cells where appropriate, but do not feel the need to add empty rows. To transcribe empty cells, please simply use two vertical pipe bars (|) with three empty spaces in between. 

For example: |   |  (and refer to transcribed example page below, which contains multiple empty cells). 

For cells that include a dash, please enter an em dash (using Alt 0151). For example: | — |. 

See example pages from the National Air and Space Museum Archive's Wright Brothers Flight Logs


Special Instructions and Tips


Some projects require special instructions based on research needs. Click here to see the list of projects that require special instructions.

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  The Purpose of Transcription


Our goal with this project is to make our collections more accessible and useful to curators, researchers, and anyone with a curious spirit. Because computers have a hard time understanding handwriting, many of our collections still hold many secrets and hidden knowledge inside their pages. With your help, we can bring that knowledge to life.



Full-text transcription of documents makes them easier to search. If we want to know how many times the word “Civil War” comes up in a Smithsonian Secretary’s papers or find the earliest known location of a particular plant species, we must have that writing transcribed. See example page.



Cursive is often no longer taught in schools; to preserve our society’s understanding of historic documents for future generations, it is essential that we create text transcriptions of these documents. See example page.


Usefulness over Perfection

Ultimately, an imperfect transcription that is finished in a timely manner is more useful than a exhaustingly detailed and carefully scrutinized transcription that takes years to finish. Do your best but don’t worry about trying to be perfect.

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