What’s in a Word?

Mary Henry, Daughter of Secretary Henry
What's in a word? It is hard to know without knowing what that word is. Here at the Archives we are surrounded by words. Words on documents, in field books, diaries and more; however, it is rare that we know what those words are. With a countless number of words, it seems an insurmountable feat to transcribe - that is, read documents and then keyboard them so that they can be searched and made available digitally - even a quarter of our collections to discover the great stories about history that lie within our holdings.

For instance, 150 years ago today, Mary Henry, daughter of first Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry, visited Washington, DC's Navy Yard. Upon reaching her destination, Mary saw an ironclad, a steam-propelled warship covered by iron or steel plates, resting in the water awaiting repairs. How do we know this? Mary, an avid diarist, detailed her excursion in an entry which was transcribed several years ago. She wrote, "She [the ironclad] is a flat boat only a few inches above the water with nothing to be seen upon her iron plated deck but a steam pipe a tall pipe for ventilation a few little holes here & there for the same purpose which are tightly closed however when the boat is at sea, and a round turret." Mary not only admired the ship from ashore, but climbed into the turret "through a small opening & saw her great guns. One of them is a monster the other some what [sic] smaller but large enough to make me shiver at the thought of the damage she might do." Mary's powerful words about the ironclad act as a microcosm for the profound impact historians have noted that these ships had on naval warfare during the Civil War. Without this transcription, an interesting note in Smithsonian history would be much more difficult to find.

Mary Henry Diary Entry Visit to the Navy Yard to See an Ironclad, November 20, 1863

With all these words and not enough time to transcribe how can we uncover these stories? Here is where you can come in. The Smithsonian's new Transcription Center has opened for business and needs volunteers to dive into our collections and help us discover new and interesting information about the Smithsonian, its history and its people. So please go check it out and help with transcribing so we can find out what is in our collections' words.

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