Digital History musings

Last weekend I presented a paper at the Virginia Forum in Williamsburg, VA. The Forum is for scholars of Virginia history. I was really impressed by some of the digital history being performed in our state and thought I would share a few things I got to see.

The Library of Virginia presented several really awesome projects. (I swear they are not paying me to write this post!)One was their crowdsourcing transcription project, Making History – Transcribe. LVA is not the only institution doing this but I do like their set-up. The library has made much of their collection digital but it’s not yet OCRed or in English, machine readable or searchable. That’s where the public volunteers come in. Anyone with an internet connection (and some time and passion) is able to view a digitized document and transcribe it. Once this is submitted it is reviewed by library staff and then added back to the library’s digital and searchable databases. The end result is more of the library’s archives are available online and in much more useful forms than PDFs or JPEGs.

Another project is their Civil War 150 Legacy Project. Staff from the library visited nearly every county in the commonwealth and held “scan-a-thons” where locals brought any Civil War related documents, diaries, photos, muster rolls, etc. to be scanned for the library’s holdings. Many of these items were things people had in their attics that researchers might never find.

Lastly, the library is doing some cool stuff to aid research of African- Americans in Virginia especially prior to emancipation. The Virginia Untold project compiles 6,000 records that slaves or freed blacks typically appeared in. These include coroner’s inquisitions, cohabitation registers, deeds of emancipation, and petitions to remain in the commonwealth.

Virginia Untold BannerThis project is especially useful to genealogists and scholars trying to track slaves through the historic record, a daunting task due to the nature of slavery. What’s even more dynamic and unique about this project is that the library has made their collections data public. You can, for example, download a CSV file of all of the deeds of emancipation made in Virginia. This has the potential for some really cool scholarship. (at least it does if you know how to manipulate data and create visualizations!)

The last project I got to see came out of VCU. The Freedom Now Project uses Flickr to display images from the VCU archive of Farmville, VA 1963 civil rights protests. It asked the public to identify the people in the pictures and provide context behind the image. Since its inception in 2014 the project has identified nearly 80 people who participated in the protests.

I found all of these projects to be a timely reminder of the possibilities of digital history  and the force of an interested and engaged public.

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