Building Online Archives in African American History—Together

April 14, 2020

Building Online Archives in African American History—Together
By Camey VanSant, CDH Postgraduate Research Associate
In a time of social distancing, a (virtual) crowd of volunteers wrapped up a project more than a year in the making. Last week, volunteers completed the transcribe-a-thon of the papers of Anna Julia Cooper (1858-1964), which are housed at the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center at Howard University. Cooper was a celebrated author, educator, intellectual, and activist who, while in her sixties, became the fourth African American woman to earn a doctoral degree.

The transcribe-a-thon began at the annual “Douglass Day” events held each year on February 14, the chosen birthday of writer and activist Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). Since 2017, scholars, students, and members of the public have gathered annually at coordinated events across the country to honor Douglass by transcribing important but often overlooked documents in African-American history. In the four-year history of Douglass Day, nearly 5000 people at 240 locations have participated.

Digital Humanities Perkins Postdoctoral Fellow Jim Casey, a scholar of nineteenth-century American literature and culture, developed the idea for Douglass Day with his collaborators from the Colored Conventions Project in 2017, while he was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Delaware. He brought the event to Princeton in 2018.

For Casey, Douglass Day provides an opportunity “to move beyond the passive consumption of histories towards a place where people [can] really start to participate and understand how they come about.” Engaging with primary sources—with the stuff of historical figures’ lives—allows volunteers to “humanize a lot of people in the past that we tend to think about more abstractly.”
This year, Princeton graduate students Julia Grummitt (History) and Elena M’Bouroukounda (Architecture), University Administrative Fellows at the Center for Digital Humanities, worked with Casey to organize the Princeton site of Douglass Day. The event—a collaboration between CDH, the Princeton Public Library, and the Historical Society of Princeton—took place at the Technology Center in the Princeton Public Library. The wider collaboration, headquartered at the CDH, also included teams from Pennsylvania State University, Howard University, and the Zooniverse organization.

Grummitt said she appreciated the chance to work “in partnership and cooperation with the broader community.” Not only did she and M’Bouroukounda coordinate with the Princeton Public Library and the Historical Society, but they also reached out to the Princeton High School and local groups such as Shirley Satterfield’s Witherspoon-Jackson Historical and Cultural Society.
“One of the benefits of partnering with the Historical Society [of Princeton] was about finding resonances with African American education in Princeton,” Grummitt said.

Casey will continue directing Douglass Day when he joins the faculty at Penn State in the fall, and he hopes the annual celebration “will continue to spread and grow.” He noted that the involvement of CDH has been critical to the success of the event.
“My time at the CDH and the support of the CDH have been the ‘secret sauce’ that made this event work well for so many people,” Casey said.

Now that the transcribe-a-thon is complete, the transcriptions will be compiled into online archives so that individuals around the world can learn more about Cooper’s contributions.

Another lesson of the project? That scholars, students, and members of the public can work together, even when we are all apart.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Though the Cooper project is complete, other crowdsourced transcription projects are currently seeking volunteers. Check out Zooniverse, the Library of Congress, or the Smithsonian for some great options. Many projects are appropriate for high school students.