Now's Your Chance to Help Transcribe the Smithsonian's Hidden Treasures

Bumblebees and Arctic adventures abound in the Smithsonian's Transcription Center collection.

Becky Ferreira

Becky Ferreira

Image: Smithsonian Institution

Rejoice, lovers of arcane documents and curated specimens, for today the Smithsonian Institution opened its Transcription Center to the public. Thousands of digitized images of the Institution's collection are now available to any nerd that takes the time to make an account here. The purpose of the new project is to enlist volunteers to help organize, transcribe, and tag the Institution's ever-growing collection of, for lack of a better term, interesting stuff.

"We are thrilled to invite the public to be our partners in the creation of knowledge to help open our resources for professional and casual researchers to make new discoveries," Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said in a statement. "For years, the vast resources of the Smithsonian were powered by the pen; they can now be powered by the pixel."

For the past year, the Institution has been testing out the new website with volunteer focus groups, and the results have been dramatic. 1,000 transcribers processed 13,000 pages during the beta tests, with popular projects being turned around with promising rapidity.

For example, the Smithsonian's Natural History museum has amassed an improbably enormous number of bumblebees, and currently boasts over 45,000 specimens. The details of every bee—including where and when it was collected—has traditionally been preserved by old-fashioned placards, some of which are only three by seven millimeters in size. In the past, researchers would have to physically visit the museum to slog through a bunch of eye-punishing data.

But given the concerns over colony collapse disorder, volunteers were quick to transcribe and tag images of successive bee sets, so now all of that information is available to anyone with an internet connection. Crowdsourcing strikes again.

Another popular project during the beta phase was 200 pages of personal correspondence between a team of WWII art rescuers recently portrayed by several handsome men in the film Monuments Men. 49 volunteers ripped through the documents in under a week, which goes to show what a powerful role the public can play in the Smithsonian's archiving efforts. Projects that might have taken the Institution years to properly transcribe and file are being completed in a fraction of the time.

Obviously, I had to make an account to check out all the other documents released for public viewing. Here are some of the highlights I came across:

"The English-Alabama and Alabama-English Dictionary 1906-1913": a collection of 5,400 notecards detailing Native American dialect and vocabulary in the early twentieth century South. FYI, Alabama Native populations referred to "fried chicken" as "akak nipo ispoatlih."

The 1860 diary of Arctic explorer Charles Francis Hill: This detailed notes about all the polar things he was encountering, including icebergs, whales, and an Inuit guy named Cudlargo. Hill also waxes poetic a lot in his diaries, and it is very endearingly Romantic-style. For instance this one:

O, to be strong from the circumstances;
to be excited by the promise of the mind;
To be inspired as it were by the driven spirit,
Tho I may continue to the end of life in my studies of Nature & her laws.

You have to love how cheery Hill's poetry is, considering he must have been freezing his butt off.

Hill's diaries, with a picture of an iceberg. Image: Smithsonian Institution.

Dozens of Bombacaceae plant family specimens, including samples from the durian, the so-called "king of fruits" according to the Smithsonian. Other members of this botanical family are notable for being used in wind turbines (balsa) and smelling like rotten corpse (baobob flowers). The more you know!

A bunch of Victorian bank notes from several states, embossed with exotic scenes and obscure historical figures.

A gorgeous collection of Haida drawings from the Queen Charlotte Islands, dated to the late nineteenth century, depicting mythological beings and animals.

And that's just the stuff I waded through after a cursory glance. The whole archive has a lot more historical and biological minutia about everything from branding cattle in the Wild West, to recognizing honeycreepers in the wild.

All the projects are labeled with the number of current participants, as well as what percentage is already complete. So if you're looking to help the Smithsonian out while edifying yourself about delightfully niche topics, join in the Transcription Center's efforts. Because there are still a lot of bumblebees left to be archived.