Volunteering at a Historical Archive during Lockdown

In most of Europe it’s been several months now since lockdown due to the outbreak of COVID-19 started and restrictions to keep people at home as much as possible were set in place and, in fact, still are across many countries. As a consequence people find themselves with more time at their hands than usual and are looking for ways to keep busy and productive or to learn new skills.

As part of attaining my degree a 4-week internship/volunteering position (about 150 hours) is required and so I thought that this is a great opportunity to get it done. The obvious problem, however, was the general closure of historical institutes, such as museums, archives or libraries, to the public. Or so I thought.

After some research it turns out that many archives, especially in the US, but also in the UK, offer remote volunteering positions to transcribe historical records, such as the Smithsonian Transcription Center or the National Archives. If you’re more into family history and genealogy, Ancestry is looking for help transcribing historical family documents to make their records more accessible as well. All of these institutions and companies are well respected across the globe and volunteering always helps to improve your CV.

I, myself, have been volunteering for the Smithsonians for some time now and have found the range of different projects to work with quite exciting and interesting. From the diaries and notebooks of a German prisoner of war in Japan during the First World War, over love letters of American artists back home, to records of former slaves in the US and their struggles with their newly found freedom. Before starting work on these very different projects I didn’t even know that Germany and Japan were at war during WWI or that their was a government institution in the USA which sole purpose it was to provide help to former slaves after the Civil War.

Apart from the interesting subjects of the projects I’ve been working on the work itself taught me a lot about how to handle and access historical records. How to read them, how to analyze them, how to decipher difficult words, how to research the subject of a document in order to better understand the content and so on and so forth. Skills that are invaluable for anyone working with primary sources.

The way it works is that the Smithsonians (or other institutions they work with) scan the different pages of, for example, a notebook or a collection, and upload them to the website. All the volunteers have to do then is to choose a project they’d like to work on and start transcribing. Initial instructions on how to transcribe in general and how to transcribe for a specific project in particular can be accessed prior to starting your work, so you actually know what you’re doing. You don’t have to be afraid of making mistakes, however, as all transcriptions are being reviewed at least twice: Once by another volunteer and once by Smithsonian staff. This ensures that the finished transcription meets the quality standards required for the professional transcription of a historical document. If you don’t feel comfortable enough to start transcribing right away, though, you can always begin with reviewing other people’s work to get a feel for the project you’re working on.

So if you’re someone who’s interested in history and are sitting bored at home right now, why not give it a go, whether it’s just out of curiosity, because of a desire to do something productively, or to acquire new skills. It will give you a sense of accomplishment and contribution and will definitely pass the time. A list of the institutions mentioned above can be found below. Of course it is far from complete and you will likely find more institutions to work for, if none of the aforementioned tickle your fancy.


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