Douglass Day: Spreading Love for Digital Black History

On February 14th, Fairfield students, faculty, and staff joined the Library, the BSU, WGSS, and over 7,000 participants from 134 locations in a Douglass Day transcribe-a-thon dedicated to transcribing, describing, and cataloging the archival papers of Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893), one of the earliest Black women to publish and edit a newspaper, serve as a Civil War recruiter, and attend law school.

Douglass Day transcribe-a-thons began in 2017 as an initiative of the Colored Conventions Project to revive the early 20th-century celebrations of Frederick Douglass’ chosen birthday that helped inspire Black History Month. Each year, project leaders from Penn State’s Center for Black Digital Research collaborate to release a new collection of digitized archival materials relating primarily to Black women’s history to the public for transcription.

Digitized archival documents are largely static images, and while text recognition software and AI transcription services are getting better at transcribing materials, there are often financial and human resource barriers to employing those technologies in every repository. In addition, handwritten materials composed of looping, cursive script as well as low-contrast scans present barriers to many readily available automated transcription products. Crowdsourced transcription projects are therefore popular ways to engage volunteers in increasing the amount of openly available, searchable, and accessible history online, while also encouraging interest and deep engagement with the historical materials.

Participants in Fairfield’s Douglass Day celebration gathered in the Innovation Lab to tackle activities such as finding names in typed or handwritten documents, transcribing typed or handwritten documents, and cataloging editions or transcribing sections of Shadd Cary’s abolitionist newspaper, The Provincial Freeman. Opportunities to learn more about Mary Ann Shadd Cary came from material curated from the Library collections as well as Penn State’s live-streamed panel discussions from scholars and Shadd Cary’s descendants. Students, faculty, and staff were excited to work with others around the country to contribute to the accessibility of information about Shadd Cary, an influential figure many had never heard of before the event, and expressed appreciation for getting closer to historical subjects through their handwriting and personal documents.

The transcription project, “Transcribe Shadd Cary”, is still live on the Zooniverse crowdsourcing website. Once the project is complete, materials and transcriptions will be validated for quality control, organized, and released to the public through a dedicated website.