Introducing “Documented lives”

I’ve spent almost every available hour of this three-day weekend building a new and exciting companion site to the BlackenedRoots blog, called Documenting lives ( While it’s not completely polished, it’s certainly ready for you to preview and even use, if so inclined. This new site focuses on original letters and documents and the stories they have to tell.

Purpose of the new site

It is my hope that this new site will serve many purposes for many people. It will definitely be a place where old, mainly handwritten documents relevant to our family history can be easily found and viewed. I hope it will also be a place where these documents can be read, cooperatively transcribed, and discussed. For me, this site will serve as an ongoing experiment in how best to achieve these goals. To that end, you’ll notice a few unorthodox features on the new site. For instance, the dates of the posts are not actually the dates the posts were published; rather, they represent the dates that the original documents were written. This will hopefully make exploring the repository and finding interesting documents an easier, more enjoyable experience.

Document repository

While it is—without question—an amazing gift to have letters, postcards, and other documents from family members who have lost since passed away, in some cases the sheer volume of these surviving documents can be overwhelming to the point of intimidation. If I were to organize, catalog, scan and transcribe every original historical document I have—just in my own collection—I would use up pretty much all of my spare time for the next several years.

I’d much rather spend my time on the already massive tasks of organizing, cataloging, scanning, and properly archiving the document collection, and then try to make it easy for others to lend a hand with the transcriptions.

Collaborative transcription

I’ve set the new site up to use a new tool (still in its beta-testing phase) that supports the collaborative transcription of documents— Scripto by the Center for History and New Media. Crowdsourcing transcription holds interest for me professionally as well as personally, as I work for a museum that has hundreds of thousands of pages of handwritten documents that contain rich contextual information about objects in the museum’s care. I’m hoping that the experimentation I do here will not only make our family history documents more accessible, but that it will also help me identify ways to extract information from the museum documents. In both contexts, sharing the work with a few (or a few hundred) people will not only help the work along, but it will also allow others to share in the thrill of discovery. In the case of the documents on this site, nearly all have not been read by anyone still alive (including myself in most cases, as I’m focusing on getting them scanned and accessible, and I can scan faster than I can read, let alone transcribe).

To help with the transcription of any document you see on the new site, just click the corresponding link in the “Transcribe” section just below the images on every document page. The first time you open any document will be a bit slow (10-30 seconds), but after the transcription window is open, you can start transcribing from scratch or continuing a pre-existing transcription attempt.

Start exploring as soon as you like!

While I’m still tweaking and polishing the new site, the site is ready for you to visit and even use. The Scripto collaborative transcription tool is set up and configured, and I’ve been busy scanning and uploading documents that you can browse and discover for yourself. There are about 15-20 multi-page documents up there already, and more will be added in the coming days and weeks. You can use the faceted browser on the left side of the new site to search by person or year, or you can use the tag cloud to find documents covering topics that interest you. Please feel free to leave comments or suggestions about how to make the site easier or more helpful. I hope you enjoy the new site!

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