New England Preservation: Abolitionist Letters Transcription Project

By Carla Charter

In the early to mid-nineteenth century there was only one method of communication, letters, many of them handwritten. The words contained on these pages documented the lives of those who lived and recorded their thoughts, both large and small, about the world around them.

A large collection of these hand-written letters from prominent abolitionists are part of the abolition collection at the Boston Public Library. “Our Anti-Slavery Collection is one of the more heavily researched collections at the library,” according to Tom Blake, Content and Discovery Manager at the Boston Public Library.

“We began digitizing this collection in 2008 and put it online with assistance from the Associates of the Boston Public Library. We have so far digitized 12,000 letters and there is more of the collection to be digitized. Those digitized letters can be found at digitalcommonwealth.org.

Last year the project was made aware of a proposal opportunity through Zooniverse, a non-profit which creates platforms for crowd sourced activities, according to Blake. The library’s proposal, which was accepted, was a platform which would allow these hand-written letters to be transcribed by on-line volunteers so they can become searchable.  A website, www.antislaverymanuscripts.org allows volunteers to register and assist in the transcription of these digitized abolitionist letters.   The project’s site, which began on January 23, currently has 2,788 registered volunteers. “Volunteers can transcribe as much as they want. They can transcribe one line, one letter, or a whole page,” Blake said.

The letters needing to be transcribed are mainly to or from prominent abolitionist figures in New England including Wm. Lloyd Garrison, Samuel May, The Weston Sisters, Amos Augustus Phelps and Lydia Marie Child.

He said transcription volunteers are from all over the world. “We have volunteers from the Himalayas, from classrooms, there are teachers in Missouri, History professors in Minnesota and volunteers of all ages, students, seniors, and people who are retired.

“Especially for the K-12 crowd and the high school -college crowd, we are putting primary sources right in front of the students.  If these letters were already transcribed, and in a book, there would be a distance.  These hand-written letters bring them home more. Its almost like reciting their words. For history students, they feel what it was like to participate.  When regular people saw something, an injustice in the world and wrote letters, among other things, to do something about it. “ Blake said.