At Atlas Obscura, we’re all about wonder and exploration—and since many of our readers are spending time at home to stay safe and healthy, we’re highlighting ways you can be awestruck no matter where you are. Read more.
If time at home has you missing life in the stacks or sifting through old papers in search of pieces of the past, fear not: You can do the same thing online. 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. Here’s how you can join them. (Unfortunately, that delicious old-book smell is not included.)
Letters and Diaries at the Newberry
The Newberry needs your help deciphering handwritten letters and diaries and turning them into searchable resources. (This can sometimes be a tall order: Good luck making sense of Willa Cather’s chicken scratch.) Library staff are hoping to transcribe 51,259 pages in all, and only about 40 percent is complete. Brush up on the library’s preferred transcription practices here, and log on to dive into the lives of American families in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.
Bentham Project at University College London
Given that the philosopher Jeremy Bentham left such detailed instructions for what should happen to his body after death (namely, transforming his bones into an auto-icon, an uncannily lifelike figure that still sports Bentham’s clothes), it should come as no surprise that he also left behind a prodigious pile of writings. The Bentham Project at University College London has already worked through some 23,000 pages of the philosopher’s musings, and they need your help tackling several thousand more. You can find the whole list of yet-to-be-transcribed work here.
Community Oral Histories, Menus, and Atlases at the New York Public Library
The New York Public Library has amassed a vast trove of oral histories about life in the boroughs, and is seeking folks to tidy up the transcripts generated by a speech-to-text tool. It’s a group effort—once a user tinkers with a line, others must listen and agree on the transcription. Grab some headphones and spend time with residents of Harlem, SoHo, Greenwich Village, and other neighborhoods that have seen rapid, seismic change.
At a time when many small businesses are struggling to survive without their regular patrons, you can also tune in to hundreds of community stories available on the project’s website, and listen to people wax nostalgic about the neighborhood institutions they have loved. The library has a sprawling collection, and volunteers are needed in other corners of it, too. You can peruse and transcribe the dishes on thousands upon thousands of menus, or take a stroll around historical insurance atlases and add addresses, correct building footprints, and more.
Madam C.J. Walker Collection at the Smithsonian Institution
Since 2013, nearly 15,000 volunteers have helped transcribe the Smithsonian’s holdings, and there are plenty of current projects that need a boost, including the papers of astronaut Sally Ride and notebooks where women at the old Harvard College Observatory recorded their celestial computations. If your social-distancing grooming routine has gone a little lax, pop into the Madam C.J. Walker materials from the National Museum of African American History and Culture, and learn how the early-20th-century beauty entrepreneur made herself a millionaire, and trained thousands of other African-American women along the way.
Scenic Byways at the National Archives
If you’re dreaming of the day you can roam outside again, perhaps you’d like to help America’s National Archives tag details in photographs snapped along 150 roadways across the country. Looking at a palm tree isn’t quite the same as loafing or lounging beneath one, but clicking through the photos may temporarily satisfy your wanderlust. You can also help transcribe an 867-page court case brought against Charlie Chaplin, slews of speeches by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and much more.
Rosa Parks Papers and Spanish Legal Documents at the Library of Congress
The Library of Congress’s By the People project needs help transcribing Rosa Parks’s papers, including her correspondence with her husband and mother, as well as a vast collection of 17th- and 18th-century Spanish legal documents (written in English, Spanish, and Latin). If you’re soothed by swimming through statutes, this is the collection for you. Other popular projects include transcribing letters to Abraham Lincoln and the papers of Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.
Do you know of any other archives we missed? You can join the conversation about this and other stories in the Atlas Obscura Community Forums.