Collaborative transcription event celebrates Douglass Day, makes historical record more accessible

No birthday celebration is complete without a cake, and there was cake to be had in Watson Library’s Clark Instructional Center, but a collective of KU students, faculty and staff were more focused on the work at hand – transcribing the personal correspondence of Frederick Douglass for the Library of Congress on Douglass Day.  

Held in honor of both Douglass’ chosen birthday and Black History Month, the event is a national transcription effort during which campuses from across the country and around the world collectively transcribe the letters and works of notable figures in African American history. Started by the Center for Black Digital Research at Penn State, this year’s efforts focused on the event’s annual namesake, who was an important leader for African-American civil rights in the 1800s.  

A now global, crowd-sourced transcribing event with an estimated 9,000 participants, KU’s local effort was a collaboration between the Department of African and African-American Studies, Department of English, Department of History, Institute for Digital Humanities, History of Black Writing and KU Libraries. Faculty and student representatives of each unit were in attendance, including Associate Professor of English Paul Outka’s English 317 class, which transcribed correspondence from 12:30-1:45 p.m. during its regular meeting time.  

A student transcribes a letter written by Frederick Douglass.

Volunteers were treated to a simulcast of Penn State’s virtual event and refreshments inside the CIC, where they logged into the “Yours truly, Frederick Douglas” project on the Library of Congress website and could select images of general correspondence, invitations, notes and notebooks written by Douglass. All transcriptions are submitted to a team of reviewers for final publication in the collection.  

Laura Mielke, professor of English and chair of the Department of History, has taught and done research on Douglass and other abolitionists and sees the value of the event in the classroom and beyond.   

“Making Douglass’ incredible papers available broadly is a wonderful task, but then more broadly, participating in Douglass Day every year is a commitment to a project that wants to make available the long-disregarded materials around African-American history and the history of African-American organizers,” Mielke said, noting the event hosting resources and community available at “I feel committed to the public facing aspects of this, but as a teacher and researcher, I’m fascinated by the materials that you encounter while participating. I’ve used this with my classes in the past.” 

Madeleine Bonnallie, an English master's student in her final semester, spent the early part of the day transcribing letters before helping host and troubleshoot for Outka’s large class. She was moved by a journal entry during which Douglass recounted caring for family and the need to advocate for people taking care of others.  

“People love having the chance to connect with these pieces that talk about Douglass and to connect more personally with that work and also to contribute to the history that we’re making with these archives," Bonnallie said. “I was seeing a mix of personal letters, some journal entries – some miscellaneous things with the thoughts he had recounting his day to a letter about his address change. Some things are small, others are really big – it's fun to see all those things collected together.” 

The Douglass Day event is a concentrated community effort to an on-going, year-round endeavor and opportunity to transcribe historical documents through the Library of Congress. As of 3 p.m. on Wednesday, more than 1,018 pages had been completed with nearly 5,000 needing review and another nearly 1,400 in progress.  

“At the end of the day, Douglass Day is about increasing access to the historical record,” said Dave Tell, participant, professor of communication studies and co-director of the Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities. “If you looked at these letters or any letters from the 19th century, the script is beautiful but it’s not widely accessible. It’s difficult, it’s not machine readable, at least at any level of reliability. To make the letters of Frederick Douglass widely available and searchable in a way that doesn’t require someone to physically go to an archive, they need to be transcribed and transcription takes a lot of person hours. We’re knocking out thousands of person hours today.”