Frederick Douglass Day transcribe-a-thon contributes to archive

By Abby Wargo


Washington College students became historians for a day during last week’s transcribe-a-thon at the Writing Center. 

The transcribe-a-thon was part of a larger celebration for Frederick Douglass Day on Feb. 14. From 12:30-3:30 p.m., students could come to the Writing Center and help transcribe the writings of Anna Julia Cooper, an African American rights activist and early feminist who was a contemporary of Douglass. 

Feb. 14 was the day Douglass chose for his birthday; he was born into slavery, so he did not know his birth date. 

The event is a celebration of Douglass by way of collective action to preserve black history, according to the Douglass Day website.

“It is very appropriate for us at the Writing Center because it is allowing us to engage with an important author, Anna Julia Cooper, as well as Frederick Douglass. But I think it is also an important acknowledgement of Black History Month, it is a contribution to that, my hope is, in terms of raising awareness about this author,” said Dr. John Boyd, director of the Writing Center and lecturer in education. 

In addition to being at the forefront of the abolitionist movement, Douglass was an Eastern Shore native.

“So, there is a local connection here as well, and I think one that the College would do well to emphasize,” Dr. Boyd said. 

This is the Writing Center’s first time celebrating Frederick Douglass Day, but the transcribe-a-thon is a national project organized by the Colored Conventions Project, the Anna Julia Cooper Digital Project, the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University, the Princeton University Center for Digital Humanities, the Penn State University Libraries, Penn State’s Center for Humanities and Information, and the Penn State College of the Liberal Arts.

The Writing Center set up workstations on computers around the room for students to drop in any time to help transcribe and create digital archive of Cooper’s writings using the online platform Zooniverse. Students could choose what types of documents they wanted to transcribe, with photos of documents provided. 

The project aimed to provide a more accessible historical record, as Cooper’s writings have not previously been digitized. 

“So, in some cases this will mean deciphering handwriting from 100 years ago, and it will mean dealing with other sorts of ephemera that may have written information on it that has simply never been recorded before digitally,” Dr. Boyd said. “The challenge is interpreting and deciphering that and being able to turn that into a written archive. These are things that are only available in print or photographic format now, and not otherwise, so that is part of the scholarly project.”

Students who worked on transcription found the material engaging.

“The documents are really interesting, which is pleasantly surprising,” junior Annalie Buscarino, a Writing Center tutor, said. “I am absorbing the material and interested in it. I think it is cool.” 

Dr. Carol Wilson, Arthur A. and Elizabeth R. Knapp professor of history, brought two of her classes to the transcribe-a-thon, as the work tied into her curriculum. Her women’s history and historical methods classes comprised many of the transcribers. 

“In all of my classes I try to highlight not just the content of whatever I am teaching. but the way we get that content, so the sources and information. This is a way to connect students more directly with those sources of information,” she said. 

Dr. Wilson has not taught about Cooper in her women’s history class, although she does talk about other important African American feminists, including Douglass. 

The historical methods course is “all about sources.” 

Students are learning about paleography, the study of old handwriting, so Dr. Wilson wanted them to get hands-on experience practicing it. 

“It gets to be really difficult, and you have to be very patient, you have to really think a lot about what you might find and what makes sense, and you have to study up on the context. You have to know about the subject to understand what it is you are reading,” Dr. Wilson said. 

Some students love it and others really find it frustrating, she said. 

Juniors Jamie Morris and Joanne Bond worked on several different documents, collaborating on the transcription. Both students in Dr. Wilson’s historical methods course, they found that the transcribe-a-thon was a good introduction to paleography.

“This is the first time we are doing it ourselves, and it is really interesting,” Morris said. “It is easier to work together, we have been going back and forth [transcribing], and it is helpful if you miss something.” 

It has been a valuable experience for her students, according to Dr. Wilson.

“It is always good to be reminded that you are part of a wider world. I think researchers get on their computer with their little documents, it can be so lonesome and individual, and this is a national, maybe international, event, and it is cool to be part of that,” Dr. Wilson said. 

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