Since 2017, the Library of Virginia has partnered with Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School (MLWGS) to offer the Making History crowdsourced transcription project to students seeking community service hours. Volunteering is now often required for graduation or by honor societies; MLWGS graduation requirements include a minimum of 140 community service hours. For budding historians, transcription offers a way to explore a subject of interest and sharpen their skills. Virtual volunteering can also be convenient for busy teens and their parents/ride service providers. This was especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic, when many in-person volunteering activities had ceased. Much of the success of the program is due to the dedication and enthusiasm of the Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School Librarian, Wendy DeGroat.
Ms. DeGroat holds in-person transcribe-a-thons for 90 minutes after school once per quarter. Library of Virginia staff visits for the first session, to introduce the project and demonstrate the website, and the last session, to announce the students with the highest volunteer time from the year. We are there to assist students with their historical questions and hard-to-read words, but often, the most fun part is seeing a table of students collaborate to solve a question on their own.
Starting with groups of five or ten students, Ms. DeGroat has built a robust volunteering program at MLWGS with over 115 students participating in the 2022-23 school year. Such was the success of the program that Ms. DeGroat selected three students to be Transcribe Team Advisors at Maggie Walker, providing other students with help and guidance: Lucille Holmstrom, Keira Kim, and Ally Lichtman. Students are encouraged to find a crowdsourcing project or collection that interests them, whether from the Library of Virginia, the Smithsonian, or the Library of Congress. Each project is an opportunity to learn more about a historical time period, event, or person(s). In addition to helping with the regular transcribe-a-thons, Transcribe Team Advisor Keira Kim has led the Spanish Honor Society at MLWGS in transcribing historical Spanish documents from the “Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents” collection from the Library of Congress, including occasional lunchtime transcription events. Read below for more from these incredible students and inaugural Transcribe Team Advisors.
Hi! My name is Lucille Holmstrom and I am currently in eleventh grade. I began transcribing in 2021, during my sophomore year after coming to one of Ms. DeGroat’s Transcribe-a-thons. I immediately discovered I really enjoyed transcribing despite initially not being all that good at it. During my sophomore year, transcribing was my main source of gaining community service hours. I went to Ms. DeGroat’s Transcribe-a-thons and then begin to transcribe on my own. The collection that I initially spent most of my time working on was the World War One Questionnaires featured on FromThePage at the Library of Virginia. As someone whose favorite subject in school is American History, I found it truly enjoyable to have the opportunity of experiencing history in this whole new way. Transcribing the documents of American WWI soldiers gave me time to think and reflect on their experiences and it really felt like a gateway into the past. This is especially true given the lack of focus in American society on World War One in comparison with World War Two.
This year Ms. DeGroat graciously gave me the job of being a Transcribing Leader with Keira and Ally and it has really been a joy to help expose transcribing to new Maggie Walker students. For me this year, coming back to transcribing has at times felt like coming home, as it was the first activity I really participated in at MLWGS following our COVID year and so the activity I’ve been active with the longest.
This year I have really gotten into the Virginia Untold collection at the Library of Virginia, which seeks to expose the story of African Americans in the pre-Civil War era. While quite different from the World War One collection, Virginia Untold has been just as fascinating. I am excited to continue transcribing during my last year of high school and hopefully beyond into college. It has been such a valuable experience to me in these past few years and it has been a joy to teach others about it as well.
I have been working on transcription projects for the Library of Virginia and Smithsonian Institution since middle school. When I started transcribing, I primarily focused on deciphering old handwriting and familiarizing myself with the guidelines and conventions. Over time, I not only grew more comfortable with the transcription process, but I also became more invested in the content of the projects. By considering the context of the documents and doing additional research on the names, places, and events they mentioned, I felt more connected to their historical narratives. One collection that has stuck with me is Virginia Untold. This project provides insight into the lived experiences of enslaved and free Black people in cities and counties across the state, including my own. For example, the commonwealth causes examine the legal implications of race relations through criminal court cases, while bills of sale and deeds record written agreements between buyers and sellers involved in property transactions and the transfer of enslaved people.
As a Transcribe Team Advisor at MLWGS this year, I had the opportunity to support over 115 volunteers and grow the initiative. By creating instruction sheets and answering questions at Transcribe-a-thons, I helped make transcription more accessible to new members. At the January Transcribe-a-thon, I introduced a theme of Transcribing Black History to coincide with Martin Luther King Jr. Day and preface Black History Month. I discussed collections from various archives that focus on the lived experiences of enslaved and free Black people. By encouraging students to be intentional about the collections they are working on, I was able to enhance the volunteer experience and share my passion for transcription with others. Transcription empowers ordinary people to engage directly with historical documents and keep individual experiences and local history alive. Transcription makes full text searches of original records accessible to the public; in fact, I have used online transcriptions to conduct my own research. My volunteer experience has truly led me to see history through a new lens and feel a part of something bigger.
I first began transcribing for the Library of Virginia through my school during the pandemic in 2020. Since then, I have continued to transcribe for the Library of Virginia through the FromThePage website for three years and have been nominated as a transcription advisor for my school’s transcribe team.
Transcription has definitely become a more collaborative experience after the pandemic with the introduction of in-person transcribe-a-thons. In my experience, it’s always fun to compare documents and the people’s stories with other transcribers! The first collection I ever transcribed was the World War I Questionnaires, a collection offered by the Library of Virginia for transcription at the beginning of the pandemic. I remember those documents for the personal stories and interesting accounts of the soldiers who fought in the first World War for the U.S. Reports ranged from short sentences to extensive paragraphs and told stories of injuries, battles, and experiences that simultaneously revealed the personalities and lives of the men who fought in the war.
These personal accounts have also helped me to better understand the effects and consequences of historical events on the individual people. Analyzing the trends and themes of history throughout several decades sometimes makes it difficult to remember the personal experiences of the people who lived during major historical events. I feel that transcribing these personal accounts will help historians understand the perspectives of individuals throughout history and will contribute greatly to future historical research.
As a transcribe advisor, I help manage after-school transcribe-a-thons with Maggie Walker’s school librarian, Ms. DeGroat, and other events related to transcription. I have also used my position to collaborate with our school’s Spanish Honor Society this year to start a pilot program for transcribing historical Spanish documents from the “Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents” collection from the Library of Congress. My role as a transcribe advisor has enabled me to provide a new opportunity for our Spanish students that also fulfills the need for Spanish transcription. In the future, Maggie Walker’s Transcribe Team Advisors will continue to work diligently and help our school’s program, and its impact, to expand.
Despite the frequently published articles decrying the death of cursive, these Maggie Walker students have shown that reading handwriting is a skill like any other. It can be practiced and improved through use in such projects as our Making History crowdsourcing transcriptions. Students, just like adult volunteers, often have to first jump the mental hurdle of thinking they cannot read historical documents before discovering that they need only spend a bit more time deciphering letters and words using context clues. There are many demands on the time of teachers and students; reading and writing cursive can feel like a sentimental nod to the past rather than a vital 21st century skill. However, the ability to read the original, handwritten documents which shaped our nation, state, and communities empowers students to participate in historical practice and form their own opinions.
Wendy DeGroat reflected on the development of the volunteer transcription project:
It’s been exciting to witness the growth of the MLWGS Transcribe Team over the past six years, and I’m deeply grateful for the meaningful service opportunity this provides for our students. During the pandemic, we gathered weekly on Zoom. To foster connections, students worked in breakout rooms (which I dropped into), and we invested about 15 minutes at the end for volunteers to share insights about the documents they’d been transcribing. When we returned to campus, attendance at Transcribe-a-thons mushroomed, sometimes requiring both the library and a nearby classroom. This year, the creativity and enthusiasm of the Transcribe Team Advisors has enriched and strengthened the program. It’s a pleasure to work with such a delightful trio, and this new layer to the program provides a sustainable, scalable infrastructure to support our growing team. Next year, we’ll be reserving the library and cafeteria for our in-person events!
-Wendy DeGroat, School Librarian, MLWGS
We can’t wait to see how the volunteer transcription program continues to develop at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School! If you are interested in Library of Virginia crowdsourcing projects, more information can be found on the Making History webpage. Several of the collections highlighted by these students can be found in the Library of Virginia’s collections on FromThePage. Any questions can be directed to firstname.lastname@example.org.