Transcription Volunteers Needed: Project Gutenberg, The Smithsonian, And More

Do you want to use your transcription and proofreading skills to make a difference? Or do you want to practice those skills so they can lead to a fruitful career? Many organizations and crowdsourcing projects seek volunteer transcription experts and newbies. Some aim to make digitized collections of books in the public domain, while some focus on accessibility and inclusivity. In any case, volunteer transcription has benefits outside of helping your chosen cause. Let’s discuss them here. 

Benefits of Volunteer Transcription

As I said, volunteering your transcription services doesn’t just benefit the chosen organization; you also gain from such practices. Here are a few benefits: 

Sharpen Your Transcription Skills

There are several free typing courses that you can use to increase your keystroke speed, yet, at the end of the day, nothing beats actual, hands-on transcription experience. Doing volunteer transcription work gives you that opportunity. Depending on your chosen cause (which we’ll discuss further in a bit), you can sharpen your transcription skills to cover a wide range of document and recording types. Volunteers of different projects may be tasked with handling historical, medical, or legal texts or records. Since most transcription companies cover similar industries, your stint volunteering for these projects can translate into meaningful experiences in your resume. 

Build Your Network

Volunteer transcription can help open many doors for you. First, your volunteer record and collaboration efforts allow you to build a cache of possible references that attest to your work. Next, you can contact connected companies or organizations needing transcription services and establish connections with potential clients. Working with different organizations involves meeting people from different backgrounds and industries, helping you further broaden your network. 

Support a cause you care about

Suppose you are passionate about a particular cause. In that case, you can make a difference by starting your own transcription business and specializing in transcribing for non-profit organizations that support that cause. 

Project Gutenberg: A Digitized Global Library

Project Gutenberg was founded in 1971 by American writer Michael S. Hart and is the oldest digital library in the world. He named the project “Gutenberg,” after the inventor Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press, which increased the mass availability of books and other text for every member of society.

Project Gutenberg has collaborated with several other organizations, including Illinois Benedictine College, Carnegie Mellon University, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It also works closely with Distributed Proofreaders, another volunteer-driven project focusing on proofreading, editing, and digitizing public domain books. The project was launched in 2000 by Charles Franks to support PG.

The Smithsonian Institution Needs Digital Volunteers

The Smithsonian Institution — the world’s largest museum and research complex — is looking for volunteers for transcription projects handling diaries, ledgers, logbooks, currency proof sheets, historic audio recordings, and many more. The project started in June 2013, and today, volunteers work with Smithsonian staff to handle scans of original documents. Their digitization and transcription process cover material from the 16th century up to the present day. 

As of November 2023, the project has more than 80,000 “volunpeers” and they have transcribed 1,287,025 pages. Don’t get scared off by that number; the Smithsonian Transcription Center is still open for volunteers. The Smithsonian Collections grow by the day, and volunteer transcribers will be busy with thousands of archives and records. 

The Smithsonian Transcription Center encourages anyone curious or passionate about helping to volunteer, and everyone is welcome. The project has virtually no requirements aside from a computer, decent Internet access, and a minimum age requirement of 14 and above. Additionally, the Center does not require volunteers to sign up; anyone can transcribe anonymously. The goal of the Transcription Center is to preserve historical knowledge, create full-text transcriptions, and create a library of historical and digitally searchable documents.  

The Library of Congress: By The People Project

The Library of Congress is on the lookout for volunteer historical transcriptionists to transcribe and review U.S. historical documents. The initiative’s main goal is to improve readability and searchability for all historical materials in their collection, as well as promote accessibility of such documents for people with disabilities or those who require assistive technology. 

Volunteers can freely choose what campaigns they want to participate in and even look through the collection to see whichever document or material interests them. All transcription is done on their website, and the platform includes improvement functions like image view filters and various adjustments to help make the process easier. Like the Smithsonian, Library of Congress volunteers can freely transcribe without registering for an account; however, only registered users can review pages and track their progress.

The National Archives And Records Administration’s Citizen Archivists

Similar to the previous two institutions, The National Archives is looking for volunteers to transcribe documents for the National Archives Catalog. Unlike the last two, the organization requires volunteers to sign up with an account. Once done, they can choose what projects or “missions” they want to help with. 

Current selections cover a wide range of topics for document and audio files, which include: World War II oral histories, 

  • Correspondences of the Director of the Women’s Bureau from 1918 to 1920, 
  • Medical transcription files from the Civil War, 
  • Court marshal records from the Battle of Bamber Bridge, and — believe it or not — 
  • Unidentified Flying Object records from the Federal Aviation Administration and the U.S. Air Force, including eyewitness statements, interview recordings, and official reports from civilians and military personnel. 

How To Be an Effective Volunteer Transcriber Or Proofreader

All the organizations in this article openly accept anybody who wants to volunteer their time to their causes. However, some people might find it intimidating to begin transcribing and proofreading text and audio recordings. 

Experienced transcriptionists and proofreaders already know how the process plays out, as they do this sort of thing for a living. Their years of experience don’t hurt, either. For ordinary people, here are some tips on how to transcribe, proofread, and edit like a pro:

Focus on The Task

It might be tempting to think of transcribing and proofreading as another activity that can be done on autopilot, that’s hardly the case. Proofreaders and transcriptionists need to focus on the work, sifting through every word of every page to get the best possible results. 

Be Patient

Typical book pages have about 250-300 words depending on font size, text density, and spacing. Meanwhile, a person reading silently can get through about 200-230 words per minute, although that’s not ideal for proofreading. Transcribers, on the other hand, can usually type anywhere from 40 to 100 words per minute. Don’t worry; you don’t need to get on that level immediately. Be patient, take things slow, and comb through every aspect of the page in front of you. And don’t forget that you can make errors while correcting something, so look out for those!

Read Out Loud

You know how it’s easier to hear grammatical errors when you read sentences out loud? Well, the same principle applies here. Fast, silent readers tend to speed through any book or page, using context clues and other details to understand most of what they’re reading while skimming through it. Proofreading requires more care because you’re here to spot errors. So don’t be shy to read any sentence aloud.

Volunteer To Help — And Sharpen Your Transcription Skills

Project Gutenberg, The Smithsonian Transcription Center, The Library of Congress By The People Initiative, and the National Archive’s Citizen Archivist program are excellent initiatives that allow anyone interested in literature and history to volunteer their time and efforts for a good cause. Help from experienced transcriptionists and proofreaders is always appreciated, and you don’t need to work in those industries to assist with the project. The great thing about this is any proficiency you develop while working with these institutions — transcribing quickly and accurately, proofreading, and editing — are all marketable skills. Who knows? Maybe your stint with one of these projects will lead to a career in transcription

In fact, having a background in transcription within a large organization such as The Library of Congress or the Smithsonian looks great on a resume, and for us, we see it as an excellent asset.

Ditto Transcripts is a Denver, Colorado transcription company that provides fast, accurate, and affordable transcription services for individuals and companies of all sizes. Call (720) 287-3710 today for a free quote, and ask about our free five-day trial. Or visit our website for more information. 

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