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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Basic Transcription Instructions


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 technically “wrong.” Find a way to include any notes the author may have written on the top, bottom or sidebar. 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

You don’t have to indicate bolded or italicized text. It's optional. 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 is some special syntax for underlined or struck out words which you can find in the advanced instructions, but they are optional.

Every bit helps

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.

Save frequently

Transcription can be hard work, so make sure you save frequently. 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.

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Advanced Transcription Instructions




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]] . See example page.


Handwritten Notes


If you see handwritten notes on or near typewritten text, please transcribe them into the transcription box using a ^ and double brackets [[ ]] to contain the handwritten text. See example page.


This sentence is printed ^ [[and here is a handwritten note]] on the page using a typewriter.


Preprinted Text

If you see preprinted text, make note of it in the transcription box like this:


[[preprinted]] Monday 17 April [[/pre-printed]]. See 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.

Two pages on one image


When you reach the bottom of the first page, write [[end page]]. Then write [[start page]] and continue transcribing the second page. See example page.

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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Reviewer Instructions


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 Basic and Advanced instructions for transcription so you know what syntax people might be using. 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.


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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.




    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.


    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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