Celebrating Douglass Day & Black History Month

To mark Frederick Douglass's birthday, on Feb. 14th, students, faculty, librarians, and staff gathered in the Innovation Lab and helped the Library of Congress with a crowdsourcing transcription project. Stags joined other libraries around the country on Douglass Day to improve search, access, and discovery of Black history.

Douglass Day celebrations began around the turn of the 20th century and helped inspire Black History Month. A group at the University of Delaware helped revive Douglass Day in 2017 and the Transcribe-a-thon has become an annual program to celebrate Black history, a “collective act of radical love for Black history.” This was the DiMenna-Nyselius Library’s second year participating in Douglass Day, engaging the Fairfield University campus in a digital service project, to not only celebrate Black history but to have an active role in making it more accessible for future researchers.

We estimate that Stags transcribed and reviewed over 72 documents, part of the Library of Congress's Frederick Douglass Papers: General Correspondence, 1841 to 1912. The collection includes public letters, intimate family moments, and much more. These letters show us the many versions of Frederick Douglass across so many parts of his long and storied lifetime fighting for Black rights and citizenship.

Julie Mughal's INST 2201 Global Engagement course attended the event and students were asked to reflect on their experience, which many noted was challenging but also "rewarding" and "eye-opening". Many students noted how challenging it was to try to read a 19th century writing style and decipher cursive handwriting. Some reflected on whether they were or were not taught this form of handwriting in school and expressed concern for future generations of students and researchers. One student said "I was taught cursive a little bit in second grade, but other than that I do not have much experience with cursive. This activity made me worry a little bit about history being lost."

Here are a few other excerpts of what students wrote in their class logs:

  • "Today was very insightful. I was able to learn a lot about Frederick Douglass and I thought the transcription writings were very helpful in understanding his struggles and his journey."
  • "...it was a great way for our class to bond and to know a little more background information on Frederick Douglass. Not only did I learn way more, but I felt good about learning all of this. I am happy that I helped make an impact on spreading the legacy of Frederick Douglass and I made history more accessible to people all over the world."
  • "At times it was challenging to find what the letters said, but I enjoyed trying to fit the pieces together and figure it out. I was happy to do what I could and make a small difference on this important day." 
  • "I hadn't realized how important it is to preserve these historical documents, not just for Black history, but also America's history. I felt like I was doing something important, and that I was a part of change. It really stuck with me when the presenters remarked how we were preserving black history, which made me realize that I was a part of this effort. I would like to participate in these events more often as I think that it is important to preserve these artifacts of the past so that we may learn from them and apply them to our own future. "

We hope that attendees learned more about Frederick Douglass, gained new skills (like learning to read cursive or using crowdsourcing software), became empowered to enhance or use archival collections, and were able to appreciate the importance of Black history.

Anyone can be a transcriber and make an impact! Learn more about becoming a digital volunteer with library and museum transcription projects on the Library of Congress, Smithsonian, and Zooniverse.

Interested in planning a transcription event with your class or student club? Contact lthornell@fairfield.edu