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 explore 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 individuals are welcome to visit and explore the TC, all Smithsonian volunteers, onsite and online, must be at least 14 years or older.
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).
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 comittment 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.
How can I use Transcription Center content?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
When should I click the "Complete and Mark for Review" button on a page versus the "Save" button? When should I click the "Mark as Complete" button when reviewing a page?
Please only click the "Complete and Mark for Review" button if ALL of the text from the original document or recording has been transcribed correctly. If [[?]] remain, or if there are sections of text transcribed incorrectly or not at all, please only click the "Save" button so that other volunteers can continue editing it. If the page is already in the "Review" stage, and you notice that [[?]] are included in the transcription, some words are transcribed incorrectly, or other mistakes remain, please DO NOT click the "Mark as Complete" button. Instead, you can "Reopen for Editing" or leave the page as it is in the "review" stage so that other volunteers can continue proofreading it. Only when a page has been thoroughly reviewed - with all original text transcribed correctly - should it be marked as complete.
How many outstanding [[?]] can remain on a page before clicking the "Mark as Complete" button?
While some words are extremely challenging to decipher and others are completely illegible, we strive for transcriptions to be completed as accurately as possible. As a good rule, we suggest that "Completed" pages should only include 1-2 [[?]]. If you are reviewing a transcribed page which includes more than 1 or 2 [[?]] please DO NOT click the "Mark as Complete" button, but instead either click the "Reopen for Editing" button or simply leave the page as it is for further review by other volunteers. If you are stumped trying to decipher the correct transcription to fill in a [[?]], you may find additional resources, listed on our tips page, helpful.
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 Smithsonian 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. You can see an example of this in the screenshot below. Further information and instructions on tracking your work through your Transcription Center "My Work" account, can be found in this PDF.
PLEASE NOTE that due to the nature of transcription activity and the technology behind our platform, we are unable to track the number of hours a volunteer participates on the Transcription Center. All activity recorded in the "My Work" report, however, is organized by date and time. Users can keep track of the time they have spent transcribing by using these time stamps. Furthermore, because of the large number of digital volunteers participating in the Transcription Center, our staff is unable to individually sign off on volunteer or service forms verifying your TC activity, and we are unable to serve as individual supervisors for your school or organization. You are always welcome, however, to submit your PDF "My Work" report (which includes this explanation as well as further details of your participation) as proof of your volunteer service.
Please reach out to us at email@example.com 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?
Unfortunately 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, clearing 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 alongside 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 500,000 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! Anyone over the age of 14 is welcome to register for a Transcription Center account, and everyone is welcome to explore our online projects and historical materials. Host a virtual or in-person transcribe-a-thon using these tips and resources, create lesson plans or exercises using Transcription Center projects, and/or browse our educational resources in the Smithsonian's Learning Lab. If your students or members need to track service hours, please note that we are only able to track the total number of pages transcribed and reviewed by individual users. You can learn more about tracking service activity in the Transcription Center on this page. Send us a message if you have any questions.
Does the Transcription Center offer any engagement opportunities for outside companies and corporations?
Participation the Transcription is open to anyone over the age of 14, and all digital volunteers can transcribe, review, and explore projects as much or as little as they'd like as there is no minimum work requirement on our end. Many national and international corporations, businesses, colleges, universities, and K-12 schools have engaged with Transcription Center projects and materials and we'd love to have any interested organization join our community. More information on getting started, instructions, and tracking volunteer service activity, can be found on this page. We also have a page on hosting virtual and in-person transcribe-a-thons which includes additional resources that may be helpful to your team.
Our Transcription Center team is always happy to answer any questions about projects and participation, but please note that we have a limited capacity to help directly with virtual volunteering events and transcribe-a-thons. If your organization is interested in a deeper, more customized engagement experience, our team is happy to connect you with our Smithsonian Corporate Membership colleagues, who can explore employee engagement benefits through that program. Also, be sure to check into whehter your company matches volunteer hours with cash donations, as our team is happy to assist with any paperwork needed. We appreciate your support!
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.