March 6, 2021

Huntington Library Announces Crowdsourcing Project to Transcribe Civil War Telegrams (Decoding Civil War Project)

From the HL:

In a move to gain new insights into the U.S. Civil War, The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens announced today the public launch of an innovative crowdsourcing project to transcribe and decipher a collection of nearly 16,000 Civil War telegrams between Abraham Lincoln, his Cabinet, and officers of the Union Army. Roughly one-third of the messages were written in code.

The Huntington is collaborating on the “Decoding the Civil War” project with Zooniverse (the largest online platform for collaborative volunteer research), North Carolina State University’s Digital History and Pedagogy Project, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum.

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The Collection

The Huntington acquired the exceptionally rare collection of telegrams in 2012, composed of a nearly complete archive of Thomas T. Eckert, the head of the military telegraph office of the War Department under Lincoln. The archive was thought to have been destroyed after the war and includes crucial correspondence that has never been published. Among the materials are 35 manuscript ledger books of telegrams sent and received by the War Department, including more than 100 communiques from Lincoln himself. Also included are top-secret cipher books revealing the complex coding system used to encrypt and decipher messages. The Confederate Army never cracked the Union Army’s code.

The “Decoding the Civil War” project provides public access to digitized images of the telegrams and code books through the Huntington Digital Library (hdl.huntington.org). In addition, the project’s crowdsourcing website on Zooniverse (zooniverse.org), engages “citizen archivists” in the deciphering of the telegrams with greater efficiency and accuracy than could be accomplished by staff members at the partnering institutions.

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In the Classroom

The project also provides a decoding activity for classroom students and museum-goers that is connected to Civil War milestones and provides inquiry-based educational modules that can be used to bring history alive. Through The Huntington’s partnerships with multiple Los Angeles area school districts and with North Carolina State University’s Digital History and Pedagogy Project, the educational modules will be integrated into teacher workshops reaching more than 1,000 teachers of at-risk students.

The Crowdsouring

Built and managed by the University of Minnesota’s Zooniverse team, the crowdsourcing project itself has three phases. “In the first phase, underway now, interested volunteers go online to transcribe the nearly 16,000 telegrams line by line, creating an extraordinarily rich database,” said Mario Einaudi, Kemble Digital Projects Librarian at The Huntington. In the second phase, volunteers will comb the database to identify significant people, dates, and times, enabling the creation of a robust search function. In the final phase, code books in the archive will be used to decipher the encoded telegrams, potentially providing fresh insights into the history of the Civil War.

Getting Involved

People interested in participating in the project can go to its Zooniverse website at https://decodingthecivilwar.org/, take a brief tutorial that explains the process for transcribing a telegram, and find further information on the project. If participants are interested in joining discussions on particular telegrams, then they will need to create a user name and password by registering with Zooniverse.

Funding

Partial funding via National Historical Publications and Records Commission (2 year grant).

See Also: Decoding the Civil War Blog

About Gary Price

Gary Price (gprice@mediasourceinc.com) is a librarian, writer, consultant, and frequent conference speaker based in the Washington D.C. metro area. Before launching INFOdocket, Price and Shirl Kennedy were the founders and senior editors at ResourceShelf and DocuTicker for 10 years. From 2006-2009 he was Director of Online Information Services at Ask.com, and is currently a contributing editor at Search Engine Land.

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