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Category: Blog Action Day

Harnessing The Power of We: Transcription, Acquisition and Tagging

In honor of the Blog Action Day for 2012 and their theme of ‘The Power of We’, I would like to highlight a number of successful crowdsourced projects focused on transcribing, acquisition and tagging of archival materials. Nothing I can think of embodies ‘the power of we’ more clearly than the work being done by many hands from across the Internet.


  • Old Weather Records: “Old Weather volunteers explore, mark, and transcribe historic ship’s logs from the 19th and early 20th centuries. We need your help because this task is impossible for computers, due to diverse and idiosyncratic handwriting that only human beings can read and understand effectively. By participating in Old Weather you’ll be helping advance research in multiple fields. Data about past weather and sea-ice conditions are vital for climate scientists, while historians value knowing about the course of a voyage and the events that transpired. Since many of these logs haven’t been examined since they were originally filled in by a mariner long ago you might even discover something surprising.”
  • From The Page: “FromThePage is free software that allows volunteers to transcribe handwritten documents on-line.” A number of different projects are using this software including: The San Diego Museum of Natural History’s project to transcribe the field notes of herpetologist Laurence M. Klaube and Southwestern University’s project to transcribe the Mexican War Diary of Zenas Matthews.
  • National Archives Transcription: as part of the National Archives Citizen Archivist program, individuals have the opportunity to transcribe a variety of records. As described on the transcription home page: “letters to a civil war spy, presidential records, suffrage petitions, and fugitive slave case files”.


  • Archive Team: The ArchiveTeam describes itself as “a rogue archivist collective dedicated to saving copies of rapidly dying or deleted websites for the sake of history and digital heritage.” Here is an example of the information gathered, shared and collaborated on by the ArchiveTeam focused on saving content from Friendster. The rescued data is (whenever possible) uploaded in the Internet Archive and can be found here:

    Springing into action, Archive Team began mirroring Friendster accounts, downloading all relevant data and archiving it, focusing on the first 2-3 years of Friendster’s existence (for historical purposes and study) as well as samples scattered throughout the site’s history – in all, roughly 20 million of the 112 million accounts of Friendster were mirrored before the site rebooted.


  • National Archives Tagging: another part of the Citizen Archivist project encourages tagging of a variety of records, including images of the Titanic, architectural drawings of lighthouses and the Petition Against the Annexation of Hawaii from 1898.
  • Flickr Commons: throughout the Flickr Commons, archives and other cultural heritage institutions encourage tagging of images

These are just a taste of the crowdsourced efforts currently being experimented with across the internet. Did I miss your favorite? Please add it below!

Blog Action Day: Flickr Commons Images of Acquiring Water

Water in Bengal
Water in Benal (1944)

In honor of this year’s Blog Action Day theme of Water, I wanted to share some stunning images from the Flickr Commons. The images I have selected, contributed by cultural heritage institutions from around the world, show methods of transportation or acquisition of water. I will let the images speak for themselves below, but next time you go to turn on the tap water in your home – think of all of those for whom getting water is a huge challenge each and every day. While most of the images below are from decades ago, easy access to safe, clean water is still a current issue. Please consider supporting an organization like Charity: Water, a non-profit organization bringing clean and safe drinking water to people in developing nations. 100% of public donations directly fund water projects.

And now.. the photos!

Summer scene, N.Y. - drinking water from street pump (LOC)
1910: Drinking Water from Street Pump, NY
Catskill aqueduct. ... Contract 58. March 4, 1913.
1913, Catskill Aqueduct
Filling an Indian pot with water from the cart
1918, Central France, Filling pot with water from a cart
[Native girls, Marken Island, Holland] (LOC)
1890: Native Girls in Holland
Ways of using a divining rod (LOC)
1910: Ways of using a divining rod
Alice Thompson, Besoco, West Virginia, Is Shown with Milk Bottles Her Neighbors Furnish Her Water with after Her Water Lines Were Cut Off. She Is Divorced From a Coal Miner Who Was Imprisoned for Killing a Man 04/1974
1974: Alice Thompson, Besoco, West Virginia, Is Shown with Milk Bottles Her Neighbors Furnish Her Water with after Her Water Lines Were Cut Off. She Is Divorced From a Coal Miner Who Was Imprisoned for Killing a Man
Faro Caudill drawing water from his well, Pie Town, New Mexico (LOC)
1940: Faro Caudill drawing water from his well, Pie Town, New Mexico


Blog Action Day 2009: IEDRO and Climate Change

IEDRO LogoIn honor of Blog Action Day 2009‘s theme of Climate Change, I am revisiting the subject of a post I wrote back in the summer of 2007: International Environmental Data Rescue Organization (IEDRO). This non-profit’s goal is to rescue and digitize at risk weather and climate data from around the world. In the past two years, IEDRO has been hard at work. Their website has gotten a great face-lift, but even more exciting is to see is how much progress they have made!

  • Weather balloon observations received from Lilongwe, Malawi (Africa) from 1968-1991: all the red on these charts represents data rescued by IEDRO — an increase from only 30% of the data available to over 90%.
  • Data rescue statistics from around the world

They do this work for many reasons – to improve understanding of weather patterns to prevent starvation and the spread of disease, to ensure that structures are built to properly withstand likely extremes of weather in the future and to help understand climate change. Since the theme for the day is climate change, I thought I would include a few excerpts from their detailed page on climate change:

“IEDRO’s mandate is to gather as much historic environmental data as possible and provide for its digitization so that researchers, educators and operational professionals can use those data to study climate change and global warming. We believe, as do most scientists, that the greater the amount of data available for study, the greater the accuracy of the final result.

If we do not fully understand the causes of climate change through a lack of detailed historic data evaluation, there is no opportunity for us to understand how humankind can either assist our environment to return to “normal” or at least mitigate its effects. Data is needed from every part of the globe to determine the extent of climate change on regional and local levels as well as globally. Without these data, we continue to guess at its causes in the dark and hope that adverse climate change will simply not happen.”

So, what does this data rescue look like? Take a quick tour through their process – from organizing papers, photographing each page, the transcription of all data and finally upload of this data to NOAA’s central database. These data rescue efforts span the globe and take the dedicated effort of many volunteers along the way. If you would like to volunteer to help, take a look at the IEDRO listings on VolunteerMatch.

Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty in the Archival Record and Beyond

Blog Action Day - Poverty long

In honor of this year’s Blog Action Day theme of Poverty, I want to point people to examples of ways in which poverty is documented in archives, manuscript collections and elsewhere.

The most obvious types of records that document poverty are:

There are also organizations dedicated to research on poverty – such as the Chronic Poverty Research Centre, University of Kentucky Center for Poverty Research and National Poverty Center. The archival records from groups such as these could show ways that organizations have addressed poverty over time, as well as the history of poverty itself.

Archives do their best job with records produced in the process of carrying out tasks related to business or personal life, and many of those who are living in the greatest poverty aren’t generating (or saving) their own records. Is being documented by photographers, news articles and the Census Bureau the same thing as telling your own story through an oral history or having your photographs, personal papers or other life documents archived? One of the most fascinating things about primary source materials in general, and archival records in specific, is the first hand view that it can lend the researcher. That sense of stepping into their shoes – of having a chance to retrace their steps.

There are certainly institutions whose records cast light on the lives of those in poverty such as homeless shelters, social service agencies and health clinics – but I would put forth that we are rarely capturing the first person voices of those living in poverty. I am realistic. I know that those dealing with the basic issues of food, shelter and personal safety are likely not thinking about where to record their oral history or how to get their personal papers into an archive or manuscript collection. That doesn’t mean that I don’t wish there wasn’t a better way. These are people who deserve to be represented with their own voice to the people of the future.

I am enamored of the idea of recording people’s own stories as is being done in each of the following examples:

I want to end my post with an inspirational project. Photographer Camilo José Vergara has been photographing the built environment in poor, minority communities across the United States since 1977.  He has re-photographed the same locations many times over the years. This permits him to create time lapse series of images that show how a space has changed over time. He has published a number of books (the most recent of which is American Ruins) as well as having created an interactive website.

The Invincible Cities website documents Harlem, NY, Camden, NJ and Richmond, CA. After selecting one of these three locations you are greeted by a map, timeline and photographs. You can walk through time at individual locations and watch storefronts change, buildings get demolished and fashions shift. The interface lets you select images by location, theme and year. My description can’t do it any justice – just go explore for yourself: Invincible Cities. The site explains that his next goal is to create a ‘Visual Encyclopedia of the American Ghetto’ (VE for short) that covers all of the United States.

In the March 2008 article Camilo Jose Vergara: 30 Years Documenting the American Ghetto, we find the following interesting quotes from the photographer:

“Once photography at its best and most prestigious became art and the rewards went to photographer artists, the field became uninterested and unable to significantly contribute to the creation of a historical record, that is to the making of an inventory of our world and to illustrate how it changes,” asserts Vergara, adding that the Internet is an ideal way to bypass traditional museums. “You can realize a larger world that can support a different kind of photography.”

The Internet is especially well-suited to housing a multi-layered history of the ghettos’ evolution. Advances in technology allow the designers to arrange images in complex ways: links take the viewer to a page that gives census data; click on a color-coded street map on the left side of the screen to pinpoint exact addresses of panoramic views, artifacts, architectural details, building interiors or street-level views. “These kinds of things were unimaginable when I started the project,” he says.

Can we expect projects like this  to give individuals of the future a real taste of what life was like for the poor in US cities or around the world? Should part of our efforts at diversity of representation in the historical record specifically address preservation of the records and manuscripts of those living in poverty? Lots to think about! I hope this post has introduced you to new resources and projects. Please share any I missed in the comments below.

Blog Action Day: A Look At Earth Day as Archived Online

In honor of this year’s Blog Action Day theme of discussing the environment, I decided to see what records the Internet had available about the history of Earth Day.

I started by simply Googling Earth Day. In a new browser window I opened the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. These were to be my two main avenues for unearthing the way that Earth Day was represented on the internet over the years.

Wikipedia’s first version of an Earth Day page was created on December 16th, 2002. This is the current Earth Day page as of the creation of this post – last updated about a week ago.

The current home page for the Earthday Network appears identical to the most recent version stored in the Wayback Machine, dated June 29, 2007 – until you notice that the featured headline on the link to is different.

The site that claims to be ‘The Official Site of International Earth Day’ is The oldest version from the Wayback Machine is from December of 1996. This version shows a web visitor counter perpetually set to 1,671. Earth day ten years ago was scheduled for March 20th, 1997. If you scroll down a bit on the What’s New page you can read the 1997 State of the World Message By John McConnell (attributed as the founder of Earth Day).

The U.S. Government portal for Earth Day was first archived in the Internet Archive on April 6, 2003. The site,, hasn’t changed much in the past 4 years. The EPA has an Earth Day page of it’s own, that was first archived in early 1999. No clear way to know if that actually means that the EPA’s Earth Day page is older or if it was just found earlier by the Internet Archives ambitious web crawlers., with the tagline “The Online Environmental Community”, was first archived back in 1996. You can see on the Wayback Machine page for, has a fairly full ten years worth of web page archiving.

Next I wanted to explore what the world of government records might produce on the subject. A quick stop over at to search for “Earth Day” didn’t yield a terribly promising list of results (no surprise there – most of their records date to before the time period we are looking for). Next I tried searching in Archival Research Catalog (ARC) over on the U.S. National Archives website. I got 15 hits – all fairly interesting looking… but none of them linked to digitized content. A search in Access to Archival Databases (AAD) system found 2 hits – one to some sort of contract between the EPA and a Fairfax Virginia company named EARTH DAY XXV from 1995 and the other a State Department telegram including this passage:


I also thought to check the Government Printing Office’s (GPO) website for the Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States. Currently it only permits searching back through 1991 online – but my search for “Earth Day” did bring back 50 speeches, proclamations and other writings by the various presidents.

Frustrated by the total scattering of documents without any big picture, I headed back to Google – this time to search the Google News Archive for articles including “Earth Day” published before 1990. The timeline display showed me articles mostly from TIME, the Washington Post and the New York Times – some of which claimed I would need to pay in order to read.

Back again to do one more regular Google search – this time for earth day archive. This yielded an assortment of hits – and just above the fold I found my favorite snapshot of Earth Day history. The TIME Earth Day Archive Collection is a selection of the best covers, quotes and articles about Earth Day – from February 2, 1970 to the present. This is the gold mine for getting perspective on Earth Day as it has been perceived and celebrated in the United States. The covers are brilliant! If I had started this post early enough, I would have requested permission to include some here.

With the passionate title Fighting to Save the Earth from Man, the first article in the TIME Earth Day Collection begins by quoting then President Nixon’s first State of the Union Address:

The great question of the seventies is, shall we surrender to our surroundings, or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water?

Fast forward to the recent awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore and I have to image that the answer to that question of if we were ready to make peace with nature asked so long ago was ‘Not Yet’.

Overall, this was an interesting experiment. The hunt for ‘old’ (such as it is in the fast moving world of the Internet) data about a topic online is a strange and frustrating experience. Even with the Wayback Machine, I often found myself with only part of the picture. Often the pages I tried to view were missing images or other key elements. Sometimes I found a link to something tantalizing, only to realize that the target page was not archived (or is so broken as to be of no use). The search through government records and old newspaper stories did produce some interesting results – but again seemed to fail to produce any sense of the big picture of Earth Day over the years.

The TIME Collection about Earth Day was assembled by humans and arranged nicely for examination by those interested in the subject. It is properly named a ‘collection’ (in the archival sense) because it is not the pure output of activities surrounding Earth Day, but rather a selected snapshot of related articles and images that share a common topic. That said, it is my fervent hope that websites such as these appear more and more. I suspect that the lure of attracting more readers to their websites with existing content will only encourage more content creators with a long history to join in the fun. If other do it as well as TIME has seemed to in this case, it will be a win/win situation for everyone.