Increasing Access: The Smithsonian Transcription Center

William Healey Dall Wearing his Expedition Uniform The natural world is riddled with complex mathematics that only adds to nature's allure and depth. Don't fear, no math equations will be used in this post, nor will you be required to prove a theorem after you finished reading. Those attributes can be used to relate the digitization efforts of the Smithsonian Transcription Center and the work transcribers contribute to the Field Book Project.  Do I still have you? 

Colored diagram of an Atlanta Scammoni Mollusk Remember what I said about no math being required.  The mollusk shell pictured here was drawn by William Healey Dall and is a prime example for this analogy.  Each subsequent layer of the shell is dependent on the previous curl’s proportions and formation. Much like the shells collected and cataloged by Dall, the Smithsonian Transcription Center is built on the contributions (or layers) of its digital volunteers. This progressive and symbiotic relationship is best explained by following the progress of the digitization of the William Healey Dall field books.

As part of the Field Book Project, many field books have now been preserved and cataloged. During the course of these activities, if a field book is identified as being a good match for the needs and interests of the digital volunteers of the Smithsonian Transcription Center, the materials are then digitized.

In the case of William Healey Dall, there is a plethora of potential candidates for transcription.  Most recently his field books from Record Unit 7213 - Western Union Telegraph Expedition Collection were digitized. This collection spans the course of several years and describes most of the Pacific coastline as well as the specimens Dall collected during his travels.  Dall collected mollusk and cephalopod specimens, drew detailed geological accounts of various volcanos and coastlines, as well as documented his daily travels, routines, and remarkable geological and malacological discoveries. The conditions he endured and recorded during his time in Alaska and the Yukon offer a glimpse at the mental fatigue of the Arctic as well as the reverence Dall held for nature. 

The fortitude required to keep from becoming fully engrossed with his writing myself is almost comparable to what was required of Dall during his lonely but fulfilling travels. While I didn’t endure weeks in sub zero conditions without respite, digitizing documents does involve long hours scanning hundreds of pages, building spreadsheets, and arduous metadata creation. Yet, in both Dall and my case, our labors were rewarded. 

Twitter conversation at the Smithsonian Transcription Center to clarify some questions about transcr Creating rich metadata for the digitized field book ensures that all documents are properly cataloged and available for users to access as soon as they are made available online. At that point, anyone can see and download the images of the field book. The field books are also simultaneously loaded to the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s database and launched as a transcription project. Digital volunteers can then choose the collection to work on and engage in a collaborative endeavor to decipher the handwritten documents. In some cases, the penmanship is unique but legible. In others, collaboration is involved to figure out the meaning of the scrawled text and how to best catalog the field books in a uniform manner. The conversation to the left illustrates the iterative process of transcribing and building a set of standards for cataloging. 

Once a field book is completely transcribed, the second half of the Smithsonian Transcription Center’s work begins. 

For the second part of this post about the further work of the Smithsonian Transcription Center, check back at the beginning of September. Until then, if this post has sparked your interest in becoming a digital volunteer for the Smithsonian Transcription Center please sign up and start transcribing.  If you’d simply like to see the digitized field books, we invite you to browse the collections.  

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