Crowdsourcing History

Smithsonian volunteers transcribe everything from Apollo stowage lists to reports on early balloon ascensions.

Mr. Green’s ascent in the Royal Vauxhall, circa 1836, is one of several illustrations found in William Upcott’s scrapbook of early aeronautica. (Smithsonian Libraries)
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It was utter chaos. For two days in August 1802, immense crowds traveled from London to Greenwich in coaches, on horseback, and on foot hoping to see the aeronaut Francis Barrett ascend in his gas balloon. Those stuck on the roads set up telescopes in order to catch a glimpse of the balloon as it floated past. Gardens were trampled into dust, sheds collapsed when crowds climbed onto their roofs for a better view, and roaming gangs of pickpockets fleeced the crowds. When it became clear the balloon would not ascend (there was a hole in the fabric allowing the gas to escape as rapidly as it was put in), the spectators rioted, destroying everything they could get their hands on.

Barrett’s attempt is just one of dozens of such accounts found in a scrapbook of early aeronautica collected by librarian and bookseller William Upcott; the clippings, correspondence, and illustrations date from 1783 to 1840. When the Smithsonian Libraries placed a digital version of the unique scrapbook on the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s site, 87 volunteers logged on and quickly transcribed its 323 pages.

The transcription project was launched in 2014; although the Smithsonian has posted millions of digital images of items in the collections, many handwritten and typed documents aren’t word searchable. Volunteers register online, select a project, and start transcribing; when each page is completed, the work is reviewed by a second volunteer, and then verified by Smithsonian staff. In one popular project, volunteers transcribed more than 1,000 pages of the “as flown” Apollo stowage lists, which can now be sorted by object name, part number, or spacecraft.

The Smithsonian Libraries has posted several projects with an aeronautical bent: the operations journal of Lafayette Escadrille Capitaine Georges Thenault; items from the Ernst Mach papers; a 19th-century German manuscript on the construction and use of military airships.

Transcription benefits the Smithsonian in several ways, says Smithsonian librarian Doug Dunlop. “It gets our materials out there, and we’re able to engage with the public, and they learn more about our materials. It also increases the accessibility of the materials; sometimes when researchers come into the library, they spend their time transcribing. If those materials are already transcribed, they can go online and download the pdfs. If they still need to come to the library, they can do that. It also helps that certain items—such as large, unwieldy scrapbooks—don’t have to be handled as much.”

View the slideshow to see various transcription projects posted by the Smithsonian Libraries.

A page from an operations journal of the Lafayette Escadrille, posted to the Smithsonian Transcription Center by the Smithsonian Libraries. The document details operations between August 14, 1916 and September 9, 1917. (Smithsonian Libraries)
Emil Schimpf was a member of the German balloon corps. His manuscript, says Smithsonian librarian Doug Dunlop, contains notes from an unidentified manual pertaining to the construction and use of airships for military purposes along with information on the use of aeronautic parks. (Smithsonian Libraries)
Mary Smith’s Commonplace Book dates from around 1769-1780. Smith was a wealthy British woman interested in science, math, medicine, and religion. On this page Smith has noted “The Newtonian reason why the Moon does not abandon the Earth.” (Smithsonian Libraries)
This manuscript by military engineer Sébastien Vauban dates from around 1700-1707, and includes hand-painted illustrations of fortifications and attack plans. (Smithsonian Libraries)
“Ernst Mach is a significant individual in the world of physics and engineering,” says Dunlop, “and this is a good representation of the type of materials that are held by the collection in the history of science.” (Smithsonian Libraries)
Mach's papers include pencil sketches—this sketch could be of Mach himself. (Smithsonian Libraries)
One of the first manuscripts posted to the transcription center by the Smithsonian Libraries was an illustrated volume compiled by 14-year-old Mary Jane Wynkoop in 1824, possibly while she was a student at Miss Gorham’s School in Elizabeth, New Jersey. The Smithsonian Libraries notes that some of the poetry and prose may be her own compositions. (Smithsonian Libraries)
The exploits of daredevil aeronauts are the focus of this scrapbook. (Smithsonian Libraries)
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