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Anti-Slavery Collection at Boston Public Library Gets a Digital Makeover

by on April 10, 2018

Do you have a few free minutes, access to a computer, and an ability to decipher 150-year-old cursive? If so, the Boston Public Library is looking for your help to make its collection of abolitionist correspondence a searchable collection.

The correspondence is part of the library’s Anti-slavery Collection, a “Collection of Distinction” at the library that has been well taken care of by the library’s staff. From the outset, this collection was “pretty meticulously cataloged on catalog cards”, according to Tom Blake, BPL’s content discovery manager, with some cards including abstracts of the letters.[i] Now, digitized versions of the letters, broadsides, newspapers, and other print material in the collection are available online via the library’s catalog, Flickr, and the Internet Archive.[ii] But because of the handwritten nature of the correspondence, the letters are not searchable by their content. With more than 12,000 such letters in the collection, it would be expensive and time-consuming to have library staff take on the process of transcribing them.[iii]

That’s where the public comes in. The library has partnered with Zooniverse, an established crowd-sourcing platform for science and humanities projects, to build a website to facilitate the transcription of these hand-written letters into machine-readable text. Users register for a Zooniverse account and then, after a brief tutorial of the transcription tools, are able to turn the handwritten letters into typed text one line at a time, saving their progress as they go. Multiple users will work on each line of text, and once three users agree on the exact wording of a line, that line is considered finished and is unable to be transcribed again.[iv] Users can interact with each other and get advice on transcribing difficult passages via a Talk page on the website.

The library launched the transcription site on January 23, 2018, and there are already more than 2,200 registered volunteers for the project. These volunteers comprise library staff and community as well as members of the Zooniverse community who span the globe.[v] The project isn’t only about the physical act of translating handwriting into typed text. One social studies teacher in St. Louis, Mo., gave her class assignments from the library’s transcription project and used it as a springboard for discussions on historical inquiry, preservation, and the abolitionist movement.[vi]

Blake is enjoying how quickly this project has moved from the simple transcription of letters into a connection between the library and its users. “Libraries these days have become more aware their main commodity isn’t necessarily their collections but the communities they build,” Blake said. “Putting our collection on a platform like this helps to make people understand this is their collection.”[vii]


[i] Tom Blake, Content Discovery Manager at Boston Public Library, in a phone interview with the author, February 15, 2018.

[ii] “Anti-slavery.” Boston Public Library. Accessed February 17, 2018. http://www.bpl.org/distinction/featured-collections/anti-slavery/

[iii] Tom Blake, Content Discovery Manager at Boston Public Library, in a phone interview with the author, February 15, 2018.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] “8th graders in Missouri transcribe anti-slavery documents and learn about the abolitionist movement.” Boston Public Library. February 7, 2018. http://www.bpl.org/distinction/2018/02/07/6191/

[vii] Tom Blake, Content Discovery Manager at Boston Public Library, in a phone interview with the author, February 15, 2018.

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