Collections of Distinction

Category Archives: Collections of Distinction

Anti-Slavery Manuscripts: How We’re Dividing the Data

Posted on February 28th, 2018 by tblake in Collections of Distinction

A note from IMLS Postdoctoral Fellow, Samantha Blickhan on the logic behind how we decided to make a fairly large collection of manuscripts more manageable in our transcription project:

Crowdsourcing can be an effective tool for classifying really large datasets, and Anti-Slavery Manuscripts (ASM) is no exception. The dataset is made up of about 12,000 letters written during the 19th century. They are included in this collection because they were either written by members of the Abolitionist movement, or their contents are related to the anti-slavery cause.

When starting a huge undertaking like this, it’s often helpful to sort the data before uploading it into a project. How we sort the data is dependent on how much information we already have about the collection. In the case of ASM, we’re very lucky, because there is already robust metadata for each subject, including the author, recipient, and date a letter was written (you can see the metadata for a letter by clicking on the Subject Info button). We chose to sort by date, and our dataset is broken down as follows:

1800 – 1839: 2,174 letters
1840 – 1849: 2,621 letters
1850 – 1859: 1,881 letters
1860 – 1869: 1,953 letters
1870 – 1900: 1,099 letters

We launched the project using only one group of data: letters written between 1800-1839. We wanted to start with a single group so that, in the event that there were problems with the site, any errors in transcription caused by bugs in the user interface would be contained to a single group of letters. Rolling out a dataset group by group can also help to re-energize a project and boost participation – we’ve learned from previous projects like AnnoTate and Shakespeare’s World that transcription projects frequently last for years, so it’s helpful to break down a dataset into manageable chunks. This allows us to let our transcribers know when a group is finished, so long-term participants can see the direct effects of their hard work. For example, as of writing this post, 490 letters have already been retired from the project, less than a month after launching.

Out of the groups above, we’ve also pulled out letters from specific individuals:

Charles Sumner Letters: 12 letters
William Lloyd Garrison Letters: 1,351 letters
Ziba B. Oakes Papers: 651 letters

The 3 datasets above were pulled out for specific reasons. In the case of Sumner and Garrison, we’ve pulled them out because the text of the letters have already been published in Memoir and Letters of Charles Sumner (Edward L. Pierce, 4 v., Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1893) and The Letters of William Lloyd Garrison (ed. By Walter M. Merrill and Louis Ruchames, 6 v., Harvard University Press, 1971-81). Once the non-published datasets have been completed, we’ll upload the Sumner and Garrison letters and give transcribers the option of working on them, with the knowledge that they’re already published. However, this transcription effort will mean that the contents of the letters will be available for free.

The Oakes papers were pulled out because they have been partially published in Broke by the War: Letters of a Slave Trader, edited by Edmund L. Drago (University of South Carolina Press, 1991), but also because they contain a different type of subject matter than the rest of the collection. Ziba B. Oakes was a slave broker who lived in Charleston, South Carolina. The papers contain his correspondence, and are directly related to the buying and selling of humans. As with the Sumner and Garrison letters, we want to offer volunteers the option of transcribing with the caveat that some of the material has been published, but we also want to acknowledge that many people may find the content of these letters deeply disturbing and upsetting. We decided that it would be best to give transcribers the choice to engage with this material, rather than lumping it in with the rest of the dataset.

We’ll keep adding more data as the project moves along. We’ll also email our volunteers every time we add more data to the project (& will also post about it on Talk). So if you’re particularly interested in a certain time period, be on the lookout!

8th graders in Missouri transcribe anti-slavery documents and learn about the abolitionist movement

Posted on February 7th, 2018 by tblake in Collections of Distinction

Dr. Lisa Gilbert, a Social Studies teacher in St. Louis, Missouri, recently tweeted about her experience with her 8th grade class transcribing and examining some of the BPL’s anti-slavery manuscripts. She blogs about it here…

As a social studies teacher, I hope for my students to develop an appreciation of the discipline of history itself. Rather than emphasizing memorization of dates and names – the kind of things that fall out of our memory as soon as we put them down on the test – my goals include exposing students to the intricacies of professional work done by historians.

Recently, my 8th grade Ancient World History students were reading John H. Arnold’s History: A Very Short IntroductionIn chapter four, Voices and Silences, Arnold describes the process of working with sources. He notes that historians need the ability to decipher handwriting and spelling that can vary widely across time periods.

I wanted to give my students a concrete experience of what this meant, and the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts project at Zooniverse gave us the perfect opportunity. Knowing the logistics would be simpler if I used my Zooniverse account to centralize our class submissions, I selected a document and used screenshots to assign each student a series of lines for homework.

When students brought their initial attempts to class the next day, we had a good laugh over how nonsensical some of their results were:


But then, working together as a team, we redoubled our efforts. One student cheered out loud when she realized this set of three markings spelled out the word ‘embellishments’:


Another student was positively indignant to learn that the sharp S could be used in English and therefore the following word read “expressed”:


We agonized over each line, but eventually prevailed. Once we had compiled and submitted a full transcription, we turned to investigate the document itself. We took our inspiration from our continued reading of Arnold’s History: A Very Short Introduction, in which he narrates a historical investigation of an archival document.

We generated a list of what we wondered about while we read, noting that these were the kind of things that could develop into questions for historical inquiry:


My 8th graders brainstormed questions about the document we transcribed for the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts project. How could we track down people and documents hinted at in the text? What did it say about women’s roles? What is said (and unsaid) about race?

Having identified these questions, we set about searching for additional information that could help us answer them. This included viewing other documents by Anne Warren Weston on Digital Commonwealth and learning of the existence of the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society. From there, we used some of our research skills learned during our National History Day projects to look at secondary literature, for example finding Debra Gold Hansen’s Abolitionist Sisterhood: Women’s Political Culture in Antebellum America.

Our goal was not to come to any definitive conclusions about the manuscript. Having read Arnold’s estimation in History: A Very Short Introduction that “The process of creating a story is not simply that of placing one brick upon another, until a structure arises; it involves deciding the causes and effects of the things described, negotiating what has already been said by other historians, and arguing for what the story means” (p. 81), we knew this was a bigger project than we could reasonably approach.

Our real accomplishment was that we became more aware of just how many questions we could ask about a single document, and how many paths sprung forward from the questions we asked. Further, we became more aware of the work of archivists in preserving these materials and making them accessible.

Being able to participate in the Anti-Slavery Manuscripts project for the Boston Public Library added meaning to our investigation of the work of historians. While we could have transcribed anything, my middle school students found it motivational to know that their Zooniverse transcriptions would make a tangible contribution to the work of real historians.

Of course, documents from 19th-century America are a far cry from the primary sources my Ancient History students typically encountered in my class. But those sources would have required us to learn both language and letters (imagine being given a tablet in Phoenician as homework in the 8th grade!). Further, the fact that these manuscripts testified to the persistence of abolitionism in American history was, in my mind, a bonus. Having worked so hard to decipher these words, their meaning was more deeply engraved on my students’ hearts: it would be much harder, from here on out, to believe that slavery was “just something people thought differently about back then.” Instead, my students know that resistance has long been a part of American society – a worthy lesson to glean from a document that we initially believed so hard to understand.

Dr. Lisa Gilbert (@gilbertlisak)
Instructor in Social Studies
Thomas Jefferson School (Saint Louis, MO)


Anti-Slavery Manuscripts now available for the public to transcribe

Posted on January 23rd, 2018 by tblake in Collections of Distinction


For the past several years, we have been diligently cataloging and digitizing manuscript correspondences from our Anti-Slavery collection. These items document the thoughts, transactions, and activities of the abolitionist movement in Boston, Massachusetts, and throughout New England. Over 12,000 of these letters were recently made available on Digital Commonwealth. This work was made possible through the support of the Associates of the Boston Public Library.

In order to make this collection more valuable to researchers, scholars, and historians we are pleased to announce the launch of a new website which will make these handwritten items available for you to transcribe into machine readable text. This site was created and will be hosted by the development team at Transcription will allow the text corpus to be more precisely searchable and better suited for natural language processing applications – helping researchers better understand patterns, relationships, and trends embedded in the linguistics of this particular community. We are especially excited to be launching on National Handwriting Day. We encourage you to celebrate by registering for the site and trying it out!

Digitizing the BPL’s Earliest Printed Books

Posted on February 27th, 2017 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction
Tags: , ,

Thanks in large part to the support of the Associates of the Boston Public Library, cataloging, conservation, and digitization of the BPL’s 550+ incunables continues to move forward. In recent months, copies of many rare, early, and critically important editions have been digitized and made freely available online.

Listed below are a few recent highlights:


Higden, Ranulf. Policronicon
Westminster: Wynkyn de Worde, 1495
Bibliographic record
Link to digitized copy

The Policronicon was compiled by the English Benedictine monk Ranulf Higden (d. 1364). A historical chronicle divided into seven books, the Policronicon recounts the history of the world from Creation through Higden’s lifetime. One of many early chronicles in the BPL’s collections, the Policronicon, takes a special interest in Anglo-Saxon history. This edition is also noteworthy for the fact that it contains, on leaf 101, what is believed to be the earliest piece of music printed in England.


The small woodcut on fol. 101 of the 1495 Policronicon is the first piece of music printed in England (Q.404.21 FOLIO)


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Semper Dowland, Semper Dolens

Posted on January 19th, 2017 by jmoschella in Collections of Distinction

During the late 16th and early 17th centuries, English lute music flourished. Bookended by the publication of John Dowland’s extraordinarily influential First booke of songes in 1597 and his Pilgrim’s solace in 1612, this period also saw a bloom of lute music in print, with at least thirty collections of songs for lute, voice, and small ensemble published in England.1

John Dowland (1563-1626) is generally considered to be first among the many lutenists who were active during this period. In 1597, while living abroad under the employ of King Christian IVth of Denmark, Dowland temporarily returned to England, where he published The first booke of songes, or, Ayres of fowre partes with tableture for the lute. The first booke was tremendously successful, going through four editions over the next sixteen years. He followed it in 1600 with The second booke of songs, or, Ayres, of 2, 4, and 5 parts and published a number of other highly influential books of lute songs.

Surviving copies of lute books from the golden age of English lutenists (ca. 1585-1615) are relatively scarce. Indeed, the English Short Title Catalogue only records four surviving copies of The first booke: one imperfect copy at the British Library and three copies in America (Folger Shakespeare, Huntington, and Boston Public Libraries).


The title page opening of the BPL’s First booke of songes (G.401.51 FOLIO)

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