For this month’s blog post, I asked Callie Freed, Local Records Archivist, to reflect on her experience indexing and reviewing our “Free Negro Registers” collection on our crowdsourced transcription site, From the Page. Callie has worked in the Local Records department for 24 years and served the Library for nearly 30 years! She can speak to a long journey of crowdsourcing projects here at LVA. Since asking Callie to write this blog, we have uploaded 39 of our “Free Negro Registers” to the Virginia Untold collection online. We are still working to get a remaining number fully indexed. Callie shares unique insight into both the rewards and challenges of indexing this collection and the importance of providing greater accessibility through searchable indexes.
–Lydia Neuroth, Virginia Untold Project Manager
Callie Freed, Local Records Archivist
Much of the work to crowdsource our transcriptions began in 2013. I remember listening to my colleague, then-Digital Collections Specialist Sonya Coleman, discuss the Library’s initial foray into this brave new world. Beginning with this crucial first step of involving the staff and then its patrons, the Library of Virginia has transitioned from a project modeled after the University of Iowa’s DIY History site (still operating) to today’s more flexible platform, known as From the Page. This collaborative online workspace allows for the transcription and indexing of non-narrative-based documents such as form-based register volumes or questionnaire documents, to name two.
To garner more staff participation for the brand-new Virginia Untold project, then-Local Records Manager Greg Crawford added transcription and approval of pages from Virginia Untold documents as a core responsibility for local records archivists. This additional responsibility gave me a more structured approach to different types of local records series and a greater appreciation for these Library-wide initiatives.
My own experience with crowdsourcing history began with approving Works Progress Administration (WPA) questionnaire transcriptions in our former site, Making History: Transcribe. After that I worked on approving state documents, such as Patrick Henry’s letters. Eventually, I transitioned to Virginia Untold projects such as approving transcriptions of chancery causes. I concentrated on approving the work of others and only transcribed occasionally to complete a project for approval. At that time, the platform had a sizable number of transcribers but a much smaller number of approvers. After nearly 30 years of working with local records, my skill set lent itself greatly to the approval process. With the free registers project, however, I have finally put my transcription skills to the best use.
Back in 2000, one of my main duties as a local records archivist was to document the free registers on microfilm. I identified and distributed all local records microfilm found in the Library’s main reading room as well as all Interlibrary Loan (ILL) copies. In 24 years, this core responsibility has shifted from managing microfilm to helping transcribe, index, and approve digital images of documents from the Library’s collection in transcription platforms like Making History: Transcribe and From the Page. Crowdsourcing is now a standard part of the Library’s infrastructure. Last year, we launched an indexing project focused on the free registers (see Lydia Neuroth’s March 2022 blog post for background and context on both the registers and the project).
Since the inception of the free registers indexing project a year ago, I have indexed and approved seven registers from four Virginia counties: Arlington, Southampton, Surry, and Westmoreland. I like the fact that all free registers are not recorded in the same way. Some registers have a more narrative style, while others are extremely detailed with numerous categories. Ultimately, we have chosen to index both types into a modern-looking spreadsheet which allows for easier sharing of information to sources such as the Virginia Open Data Portal.
Because indexing differs from transcribing, I found it was extremely helpful to start the process by reviewing the short video tutorial “Indexing Free Registers from Virginia Untold,” which can be found on the Virginia Untold website. Once entering the From the Page site, I also reviewed the “Help” tab found on each page of the register. This tab gives pointers on entering information correctly. At the bottom of each register page is “Notes and Questions” section where indexers can ask questions about the material or note mistakes made by the clerk when completing the registration process. It also helps to check out completed pages in a register (ones that are already indexed and approved) to better understand what is required for the index’s successful completion. The more accurate you are, the better the finished product. In this case, the devil really is in the details.
In my estimation, the greatest issue faced is one of not completely understanding the material. Free yourself from the traditional transcription mentality and instead embrace a more flexible and adaptable approach to a varying format. You can use other completed registers from localities such as Loudoun, Henrico, and Amelia Counties (to name a few) to reference how certain fields are used by clerks and should be entered into the spreadsheet. As previously indicated, some registers have a great deal of information so these volumes will take time to index. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes but do learn from them and continue to improve.
I’ve noted that one area of difficulty is the “Alias” field. The “Alias” field should be used to enter alternative names or nicknames for the free person being registered. For instance, the clerk entered the name of a formerly enslaved individual as “Moses sometimes called Moses Deacon.” As long as all name variations are captured, it does not necessarily matter in what order they are placed. The Amelia County “Free Negro Register,” 1804-1835, presents some interesting issues as well. Occasionally, the clerk noted some variations on spelling of enslaved names. I included both variations in the name category, as seen in the screenshot below (from page 97 of the Amelia County register in From the Page).
In the same registration entry, the clerk used two different spellings for this woman: ``Harriott`` and ``Harriett.`` As an indexer, Callie chose to put both variations in the name field. Another option is to utilize the alias field for one of the spellings.
Another notable issue in this volume is confusion with the date of registration. Either the month, day, and year, or month and year are typically found above the clerk’s signed statement. It’s easy to confuse the registration date with other miscellaneous dates such as when wills and deeds were recorded. Miscellaneous dates such as these are best placed in the “Additional Information” field. If there is no registration date, leave the field blank. I have also noticed that some indexers miss physical characteristics described by the clerk such as scars or other notable physical attributes. These details should be entered into the “Physical Description” field.
There is a great deal of invaluable and interesting information found in these registers. On page 57 of the Amelia County register, the clerk noted that formerly enslaved woman Charlotte obtained her freedom from a freedom suit against Pleasant Hunnicut in the Prince George County Court of Appeals. One entry can turn into a completely new research avenue to pursue. Unfortunately, Prince George County is a locality with a catastrophic loss of records, so we may never know her entire story. However, documenting information such as this from the register books makes this project even more valuable for discovering information about people who lived in localities from which records don’t survive.
Entry in the Amelia County ``Free Negro Register,`` 1804-1835, for Charlotte, who won her freedom in a suit from Prince George County.
The Westmoreland County “Register of Free Negroes,” 1828-1849, stands out from other volumes in how the clerk approached recording the material. There are some registrations, such as one for Thomas W. Chamber (see page 36) registered in Westmoreland County on 5 May 1836. His registration was witnessed by John Hart, a magistrate in the town of Fredericksburg. The clerk recorded the registration of James Grymes (see page 62) on 14 April 1834, but the clerk appears to be entering a previous registration from Caroline County. Typically, the clerk recorded mostly certifications—when the free person was certified and when his or her free registration papers were delivered.
Register entry for John Grymes in the Westmoreland County ``Register of Free Negroes,`` 1828-1849.
My advice to volunteer indexers would be: find out what works best for you! We all need to work together to tell a story larger than the sum of these registers. With everyone’s help, the Library and this wonderful new community of indexers will help to build a more searchable and useful way to access Virginia history. I am proud to proclaim that one of the registers that I helped transcribe and approve, the Southampton County Register of Free Negroes and Mulattoes, 1794-1832, has met this goal. Check out the finished project! Help the Library of Virginia celebrate its 200th anniversary in style by signing up today for a free account on From the Page. We need your expertise!
The scanning and digitizing of these registers is made possible through a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) grant. NHPRC provides advice and recommendations for the National Archives grants program. An announcement will be made when these records are added to the publicly-accessible digital Virginia Untold project.