History at Home

By Joanna Wendel

Although shelter-in-place orders may be lifting gradually, most of us will still be spending more time than usual at home in the coming months—which means that now is a good moment to consider all the ways we can connect with history from home. Whether collecting artifacts that document life during the pandemic, contributing to an online transcription project, or exploring a museum or historic site with a virtual tour, more time at home offers unexpectedly rich opportunities to contribute to the historical record, immerse yourself in the past, and even indulge in a bit of virtually enabled wanderlust.


Rapid-response collecting: Historical societies need your contributions

Historical societies, museums, universities, and libraries nationwide have issued calls for contributions of material related to COVID-19 to help create a record of daily life during this unprecedented time. These emergency initiatives, known as rapid-response collecting, have been used to document other historic crises, including September 11, Hurricane Katrina, and the Boston Marathon bombing, as well as protest movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Women’s Marches of 2017 and 2018.

In April, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History announced the formation of a task force dedicated to collecting material that will help tell the story of the pandemic and its impact. Coincidentally, the NMAH had been planning an exhibition on the history of disease in the United States long before the pandemic emerged. Now, the unexpectedly timely exhibition will incorporate material related to COVID-19.

At the moment, most institutions are accepting digital submissions only. Meanwhile, they are asking people to retain relevant physical objects until a time when it will be safe to transport, accept, and process them. Institutions are also mindful of the need to refrain from collecting medical equipment and other essential supplies until they are no longer urgently needed.

As the Washington State Historical Society explains, historians are eager to receive “anything related to the coronavirus pandemic and your experience that you think would be interesting to someone ten, twenty, or one hundred years from now.” Photographs reflecting the unique conditions of life during a pandemic are obvious candidates for submission. However, institutions are also requesting digital content—including web pages, emails, text messages, and social media posts—that relates directly to COVID-19. Screen shots are a useful way to capture this kind of ephemeral material. At the New-York Historical Society, associate curator of material culture Rebecca Klassen was surprised and delighted to receive a collection of screen shots from a young woman engaging in remote social activities with her family, such as watching a Netflix show, playing games, and cooking in tandem. When it’s safe to receive them, historians are hoping to collect objects including PPE and sanitizing products; public signs and flyers with information about business closures and public health directives; and homemade signs, notes, and works of art.

Personal narratives will also play a key role in documenting the pandemic experience. Historians are encouraging people to keep journals that might later become part of an archive. If you’d like to share your story right away, many institutions have made it easy to submit a personal narrative online. For example, the Chicago History Museum and the Michigan History Center each offer a list of prompts to respond to either in writing or with a voice recording. History Colorado offers a survey, a journal template, and a phone number where contributors may leave a voicemail.

Oral histories—traditionally collected in the form of interviews—are a vital contribution to the historical record, and they’re easier than ever to record with your computer or smartphone. StoryCorps, a leader in the field of do-it-yourself oral history since 2003, launched a new virtual platform in March 2020 called StoryCorps Connect that allows users to conduct interviews remotely. Audio files submitted through the platform will automatically enter the Library of Congress. The ambitious COVID-19 Oral History Project, administered by a team of scholars at Indiana University, allows users either to conduct a traditional interview or to submit a self-recorded narrative, all of which will become part of a searchable database.


The power of collaboration: Volunteer for crowdsourced transcription

If you’re looking for an immersive experience that also provides a welcome distraction from current events, consider volunteering for a crowdsourced transcription project. Crowdsourced transcription debuted about ten years ago and is now a standard, widely used, and even integral component of digitization initiatives. It’s especially transformative for manuscripts containing text that isn’t easily captured by OCR (optical character recognition) technology.

The Smithsonian established its online Transcription Center in 2013. What began as a pilot project is now a permanent and thriving component of the Smithsonian’s ongoing commitment to make its collections more accessible. As coordinator Caitlin Haynes explains, the Center began with a twofold purpose: to make digitized collections more “discoverable” and therefore useable, and to provide an opportunity for the public to engage with the collection in a hands-on, intimate way.

So far, over 19,000 volunteers from around the world have transcribed over 550,000 pages. About 25% of registered users are returning volunteers—although Haynes emphasizes that there is no minimum work requirement. Whether you transcribe a single word or hundreds of pages, the Smithsonian considers you a valued “volunpeer.” The Center has experienced a record surge of interest since shelter in place policies went into effect; Haynes reports that new user registration is up by 1,800%.

The Library of Congress established its own transcription center, By the People, in 2018. The LOC has experimented successfully with crowdsourcing in the past— in 2008, they asked users on Flickr to tag and describe over 4,000 photographs—but their new center has emerged in the context of Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden’s mission to increase digital access to LOC collections on a massive scale. According to community manager Carlyn Osborn, By the People has noticed an 84% increase in daily new users and a 300% increase in daily rate of completion since March.

Another popular transcription platform, From the Page, is the product of Sara Brumfield and Ben Brumfield, a husband-and-wife team of software developers. In the early 2000s, inspired by Wikipedia’s model of collaborative knowledge generation, Ben created a platform to enable himself and his relatives to transcribe journals inherited from his great-great-grandmother. Soon after, he discovered a demand for this software in the growing field of digital humanities, and began collaborating broadly with libraries and archives.

Occasionally, transcription volunteers stumble upon striking discoveries. At the Smithsonian, volunteers transcribing the notes of botanist Joseph Nelson Rose uncovered previously unknown contributions from 27 female researchers after noticing variations in handwriting and women’s names throughout the text. At From the Page, a volunteer transcribing lighthouse keepers’ logs at the Yaquina Head Lighthouse found a detailed entry about a shipwreck. The volunteer independently searched local newspaper archives and found a report of the shipwreck corresponding with the keeper’s record, adding a valuable and previously undocumented component to the Lighthouse’s knowledge of its own history.

If you’d like to give transcription a try, below are some of the most interesting projects currently in need of volunteers:

– At the Smithsonian Transcription Center, consider transcribing records from the North Carolina Freedmen’s Bureau, or letters from American artists in Paris between 1860 and 1930.

– At By the People, where projects are organized thematically, you may transcribe material related to women’s suffrage, or field notes of renowned folklorist Alan Lomax.

– At From the Page, multiple libraries at Harvard University need help transcribing key documents from colonial America, including letters, manuscripts, and maps.

Zooniverse, a hub for crowdsourced research and transcription in both history and science since 2010, offers transcription projects including military records of African American Civil War soldiers or conference notes from Supreme Court justices.

– The Citizen Archivist project at the National Archives Museum offers a range of topics, including documents from the Franklin D. Roosevelt Master Speech Files.


Virtual escapes: Exploring museums and historic sites around the world

A growing number of museums and historic sites offer virtual tours, in formats ranging from 3-D walkthroughs to videos to slideshows. As museums around the world report record increases in web traffic, it’s clear that many of us are craving a change of scenery. While most virtual tours don’t come close to replicating the on-site experience, a handful that do may be worth your time.

The National Gallery offers some of the most satisfying virtual museum tours currently available. All three temporary exhibitions that would normally be open to the public are available as interactive virtual walkthroughs that closely approximate a real visit. Not only can you zoom in on objects as you “move” through the galleries for a clear, high-resolution view, you can also click on colored circles to read wall labels, listen to audio guide content, and even watch video clips. If you’re missing live performances, a tour of Degas at the Opéra will transport you to 19th-century France, where you can explore Degas’ engagement with the legendary spectacles at this Paris institution. Feeling stifled? The luminous oil sketches in True to Nature: Open-Air Painting in Europe, 1780–1870 may be the dose of fresh air you need. Or, for quietly breathtaking draftsmanship, the small but stunning Raphael and his Circle, commemorating the 500th anniversary of the artist’s death, highlights four rare drawings by the Renaissance master and related works by his peers.

A number of historic sites around the country offer similarly in-depth tours. If you won’t make it to Monticello any time soon, you can simulate the experience with a virtual walkthrough, complete with clickable labels and audio guide clips. Those of us working from home might be particularly envious of Jefferson’s spacious library, which includes a French drafting table on which he may have designed the University of Virginia. Mount Vernon offers a similarly comprehensive tour with clickable labels and videos. The vivid green walls of Washington’s dining room could be the jolt of interior design inspiration you need. If you’ve been using time at home to work on your novel, perhaps a tour of the spacious yet cozy Mark Twain House will be especially appealing. Another institution using virtual technology to great effect is the American Battlefields Trust, which offers interactive tours of 20 pivotal battlefields from the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Each tour includes a generous overlay of clickable text and images, including historic photographs and illustrations, adding extra insight to the virtual experience.

The most comprehensive collection of virtual tours can be found at Google Arts and Culture, which partners with over 2,000 museums and historic sites worldwide. At least 500 partner institutions offer full or partial 360-degree tours made possible by Google’s Street View technology. While Google’s virtual tours don’t include the clickable supplements that make the tours mentioned above so satisfying—not to mention that the image quality leaves something to be desired—a brief “stroll” around Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal, or selected galleries of the British Museum may still provide a welcome diversion.

While virtual walkthroughs can be delightful, too much spinning and zooming can leave you dizzy. For a more grounded experience, many museums on Google Arts and Culture offer slideshow “exhibitions” giving overviews of key parts of their collection, or highlights from past installations. Alternatively, you may simply explore groups of images on your own. A full list of partner institutions can be found here. As we wait for a time when we’re free to travel once more, perhaps you’ll find inspiration for your next trip while clicking and scrolling your way through some of the world’s most fascinating cultural sites.