Digitizing History — Maine Seeks Volunteers to Help With Daunting Task

Mar 17, 2017

PORTLAND, Maine - The Maine State Archives and Library would like to make its trove of documents available for internet searching. But there's a problem:  Much of the oldest material in its collection is hand-written - letters, diaries, even flyers. In order to make that searchable, someone has to transcribe that content word by word. And, as Irwin Gratz reports, that someone could be you.

If you want to make Adam Fisher of the Maine State Library chuckle, ask him how long it will take to turn all the hand-written documents in its possession into typewritten documents that a computer could search through.

“You know, just imaging the content will take many, many decades, and...eh - at least with the technology we have now,” he says.

Fisher is director of collections development at the Maine State Library.  Making an old letter or court record computer text searchable isn't difficult. But it means someone has to read it and type what they see into a computer. 

The more people who work on the project, the faster it will go. So the Library and the Maine State Archives launched the "Digital Maine Transcription Project" earlier this month. They're inviting anyone with the interest, a computer, and some time, to visit a website where they read old documents, and type in what they see.

The information entered becomes what's called "meta data" - that is, computer-searchable. Kristen Musynski is with the Secretary of State's office, which oversees the Maine State Archives.

"Our archivists were inspired by the digitization/transcription project that was done at the Smithsonian,” Musynski says. “That they had a really good response from the public for that, participation-wise - that helped get a lot of their documents transcribed, and they wanted to bring something like that to the state of Maine."

Muszynski says this could be a boon to historians who contact the archives looking for records on a particular topic, event, or person of interest

It can be a challenge, sometimes, to find exactly what you're looking for, or to find everything that's related to what you're looking for that really creates a complete picture,” she says. “We have documents going back to the beginning of the state."

Adam Fisher says digitizing records and making them available on the web creates new opportunities for ordinary folks to become historians. He tells this story of a woman who researched a relative, a former state official.

She got started on that when she was recovering from an illness and had just done a quick Google search and started finding things online that had been posted, because it had been digitized at some point,” Fisher says. “And that inspired her to do some real digging and she ultimately wrote a book."

Since the program's launch, more than a hundred people have signed up, transcribing more than 800 documents. They include Civil War hospital records, correspondence from the library's Dahlov Ipcar collection, and town records.  

If you sign up, you can do as little, or as much, transcribing as you have time for. But the competitive-minded should be warned: They've now posted a transcription leader board, and Number 1 on the list has racked up 295 edits.

For more information on this "crowd-archiving" project, visit digitalmaine.net/projects.