There is an endless amount of work to be done in the digital archives field. When most of the country faced job losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online transcription provided Ohio University Libraries with the opportunity to supplement the work of the Libraries’ staff and student workers with tasks that could be accomplished remotely. Contributing to the Libraries’ Digital Archives helped fill the gap when the amount of on-site work declined.
The University Libraries’ Digital Initiatives unit (DI) has long relied on the work of student employees to enhance the digitized primary resources with transcription of cursive materials and correction of auto-recognized printed text. Already accustomed to engaging with the Digital Archives, many of them pivoted to online transcription within a couple of weeks of the initial COVID-19 shut down in March 2020. Utilizing the web-based software platform designed for collaborative transcription called FromThePage, DI quickly transitioned from using on-site software to working from home. “Before long, participants grew to include not only students within our department but staff and students interested in remote work options throughout the library,” Digital Imaging Specialist and Lab Manager Erin Wilson says.
Without the experience of working with Archives and Special Collections materials — both analog and digital — it might be difficult to fully understand the hidden labor that preserves and makes accessible those contents. “Transcription is vital for accessibility and discoverability of online resources,” Wilson says. “Particularly for handwritten materials, where the text is not easily detected with software.”
University Libraries’ Digital Archives include a range of materials from past and more recent eras, such as the Don Swaim Collection’s nearly 900 interviews and radio broadcasts with contemporary authors. “I think some people might assume that archival collections are strictly for old books and documents or that they’re most relevant to someone studying history,” Wilson says.
Before the pandemic, Library Support Specialists Jeff Fulk and Sandy Gekosky worked on transcription of audio recordings from the Swaim Collection when they had slow periods while working at the Libraries’ Southeast Ohio Regional Library Depository (AKA the Library Annex). Gekosky says her transcription skills fully developed when the pandemic began and Miriam Nelson, interim head of the Mahn Center for Archives and Special Collections and head of Preservation and Digital Initiatives, encouraged her to work with DI. Now, Fulk and Gekosky work on transcription several times a week.
The Libraries offers a variety of transcription projects, allowing transcribers to pick and choose between projects. Fulk particularly finds transcribing questionnaires from the Cornelius Ryan Collection of World War II Papers satisfying. The questionnaires bring to life the first-hand accounts of soldiers during World War Two.
Description is another time-consuming hidden labor task offered to remote library workers. According to Wilson, description “involves tagging and assigning metadata, such as titles and locations, to image files so they can be more easily discovered and understood by users.” As a photographer herself, Gekosky appreciated the opportunity to create descriptions for the Peter Goss Photograph Collection, which contains the 1960s work of the OHIO alumnus and architectural historian. Gekosky loves seeing photos of how Athens has changed over time, “Did you know there was a railroad once that went through Athens?”
Transcribing since 2019, John Higgins, a Federal Work-Study Student Assistant in DI, has learned just how important transcribers are. “It may be easy to go online and look for these documents and sources, but the process by which they get onto the internet is one that is filled with precision, accuracy, awareness, and real passion by the people who do it,” he says. Although many people using the transcripts will not understand the hidden labor that Higgins and others have contributed to the archives, he takes pride in knowing that he took part in documenting history.
Prior to the pandemic, sophomore Kathleen Tuley worked for the Collections Assessment & Access department through the Federal Work-Study program. The amount of work she was able to do onsite decreased with the pandemic; however, she was able to continue to work through DI’s remote projects. Tuley completes the final step in the transcription process. She reviews, or proofreads, completed transcripts making sure “every word matches perfectly.” The corrected transcripts are then added to the Libraries’ public collections in batches. Accurate transcription is essential for future users, which is why Tuley says reviewing is more difficult than it may appear.
Budget Assistant Kim Brooks began transcribing in the early days of remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not being on-site reduced the amount of work she was able to do from home so she needed additional tasks to fill her days. Brooks says that deciphering handwriting, although atrocious at times, is a satisfying accomplishment. She particularly enjoys transcribing the Board of Trustees minutes from the late 1800s-early 1900s. “They are not at all easy to read,” Brooks says, “So I feel a great sense of accomplishment in learning to decipher the handwritten documents.”
Whether the transcription is satisfying or challenging, transcribers work diligently to improve University Libraries’ archival collections so that students, faculty, and researchers everywhere have access to these accurate, valuable resources. “I found safety and security and stimulating work that produced hundreds and hundreds of digital files online of valuable information for researchers at Ohio University to access in the future wherever they may be,” Gekosky says.
View the Libraries' Digital Archives at https://media.library.ohio.edu
Written by Digital Initiatives Social Media Editor Ellie Roberto, Bachelor of Science in journalism, Journalism Strategic Communications major and Marketing minor, expected graduation 2022