March 26, 2020

Ever wanted to be an archivist? Now’s your chance


Lately we’ve written much about how a global pandemic is affecting the book industry, and how we can help our struggling bookstores and libraries. OK, I guess that’s all we’ve written about.

But not all of our support needs to be financial. We can also donate some good old fashioned elbow grease in the form of our own barstool expertise.

As Jessica Leigh Hester writes in her recent Atlas Obscura roundup of remote library archive projects that we can all volunteer for:

Slews of institutions are in the market for armchair archivists—volunteers who can generate knowledge by clicking through digitized resources, deciphering handwriting, tagging photos, and more.

Several institutions have already seen an uptick in digital detective work since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. A transcription project at the Newberry, a research library in Chicago, has seen a surge in contributions: “In two weeks, we’ve received 62 percent of the traffic we typically see over the course of an entire year,” writes Alex Teller, the library’s director of communications, in an email. This past weekend, the By the People transcription project at the Library of Congress saw 5,000 more users than the previous weekend, says Lauren Algee, the team lead for the crowdsourced initiative.

Some institutions—like The Newberry in Chicago—are hoping you’ll be able to transcribe handwritten letters to make them searchable online. The NYPL is hoping folks can help edit the infelicities generated by the speech to text tool used to transcribe their NYC oral history project. Or, if you’re the intrepid outdoors type, you can lend a hand by tagging the notable features in The National Archives’s roadside photography collection.

Find out how you can help here.

Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.