Historic letters come alive in digital form.

Mary Woolley letter to Jeannette Marks, 1900

By Sasha Nyary

Researchers have used crowdsourcing to solicit services, ideas, and content for decades in fields ranging from astronomy to ornithology to genealogy.

Now, Archives and Special Collections at Mount Holyoke College is using the same tool to make historic handwritten letters available online, soliciting help from enthusiastic alumnae volunteers and others to transcribe them.

“We have a wonderful collection of letters and diaries from students and alumnae,” said Leslie Fields, the head of Archives and Special Collections. “The idea is to make these documents as accessible and usable as possible. We want all students to have the opportunity to have hands-on experience with the archives.”

Nearly 40 people—mostly alumnae—have signed up to be transcribers. They’ve made 1,364 edits and transcribed 108 complete letters, at last count.

The transcription process is simple. Individuals log into the website, Transform / Transcribe: A Mount Holyoke College History Project, and open a handwritten letter that has already been scanned. On the screen, a blank field opens underneath the document, and the user types the text from the letter. If a word or phrase is incomprehensible, she notes it. Once a letter is completed, the archives staff reviews it, closes it from further editing, and makes the material available for research.

Such transcription is helpful, even necessary, Fields said. Increasingly, American students do not learn cursive in school, and international students are sometimes less likely to know it. That unfamiliarity makes it hard for them to do research using handwritten letters from the archives.

“Student assignments are often only a semester-long—or shorter,” said Fields. “So they don't actually have enough time to become familiar with an individual's handwriting style and work through it. We don’t expect them to spend hours and hours trying to work out sentences. It's our responsibility to make these collections more accessible and to help researchers to use them.”

Creating a digital record of the letters also means that they are searchable electronically. That gives researchers the opportunity to cross-reference words and phrases across materials and across decades, rather than reading every single letter. Transcribed documents also are more accessible because they can be read by voicing software for the vision-impaired.

Transcribing these primary source materials is a tremendous service to scholars and casual users alike, Fields said. The project also benefits alumnae, their friends and relatives, and people interested in women’s history and women’s colleges, Fields noted.

The process

Getting a collection of documents ready for transcribing is time-consuming, said Fields. That is one of the reasons crowdsourcing made practical sense.

“Lots of eyes on the material makes it more likely that all the handwriting will be transcribed,” Fields said.

Fields and Special Collections Archivist Deborah Richards work closely with the digital assets and preservation services team to select and create the transcriptions projects. One of the primary goals is to connect the College’s physical and virtual exhibits, Fields said.

The letters between Mary Woolley, who served as the 11th president of Mount Holyoke College from 1900 to 1937, and her partner, Jeannette Marks, were an obvious choice to digitize, for example. Their life together is an important piece of the College’s history, and a physical exhibit on the Woolley and Marks letters had already begun.

The Woolley-Marks papers fill 43 archival boxes, nine of which have been fully digitized. Three boxes have been uploaded for transcription, and the remaining six will be made available this spring.

“We estimate that currently about 225 hours of work has gone into digitizing the Woolley-Marks letters,” said Shaun Trujillo, the digital library applications manager.

The launch

The project launched at Reunion 2015, when Fields introduced alumnae to crowdsourcing transcription and had them try their hand at it. The alumnae were thrilled. When the session ended, they weren’t ready to stop.

“This was a wonderful moment,” Fields said. “They wanted to finish their letters. They wanted to complete them, to do the best job they could. It was really nice to see them interacting with the historical material that way and to be so excited about it.”

Sara Dalmas Jonsberg ’60 has transcribed about a dozen letters as part of her informal research about Mary Woolley, whom she described as a “transformative presence.”  

“Mary Woolley was a dramatically creative, dynamic woman,” said Jonsberg, who focuses on Woolley’s years as a professor at Wellesley College and her early years as president. “I’m interested in her presence, her power of personality that comes through her letters. She has extensive use of exclamation points that conveys a kind of joyfulness to me that was part of who she was. A kind of optimism.”

The future

A set of letters to and from Caroline Henderson from the class of 1901, a farmer during the Dust Bowl, already was digitized, so it became the second transcription project.

Archives Assistant Emily Isakson ’19, who is studying classics and art history, has been transcribing letters from Henderson's daughter to her mother. She wants to be a curator or archivist so transcribing is a perfect entry for her.

“I’ve had a lot of fun transcribing letters because it’s like glimpsing into a book,” she said. Like Jonsberg, Isakson has developed an intimate feel for the women writing nearly 100 years ago.

“Her daughter lives in Arizona and she’s always talking about the landscape and the weather,” she said. “She’s always talking about getting her mother to go on a trip with them. ‘I know you’re tired but I’d love to have you join us.’ It’s sweet.”

Also in the digitizing queue are materials from the missionary work of Fidelia Fiske, a former professor who opened a school for girls in what was then Persia, and the earliest letters of Mount Holyoke students, those from the late 1830s to the 1850s, before the other Seven Sisters colleges were founded.

“Mount Holyoke was a female seminary for a long time,” Fields said. “It’s important to have all that material. It’s a unique documentation of women in higher education. There’s all this great primary source material.”

Join the crowd

Many of the materials that have been digitized but do not yet appear on the transcription site  can be found at the Archives and Special Collections Digital Images site. To become a transcriber, email transcribe-g@mtholyoke.edu. Instructions also are listed on the transcription website.

Become part of history. Join the transcription project today.