October 01, 2017
Alex Smith, emeritus registrar at Susquehanna University, was recently awarded the Citizen Archivist Award from the National Archives for his work transcribing more than 15,000 historical documents.
National Archives Catalog Community Managers Suzanne Isaacs (left) and Meredith Doviak (right) with Alex Smith. Smith is holding a 19th century example of a wooden box used for the storage of records.
The National Archives created the Citizen Archivist transcription project as a means of increasing public access to the records of the federal government.
“Shortly before I retired, I read an article in the New York Times, which said that the National Archives have tens of millions of documents stored in obsolete technology,” Smith said. “It has turned out that, for me, this is an ideal retirement project.”
Since beginning his work in 2015, Smith has transcribed 15,400 documents, including:
- Insurance claims from passengers on the Titanic
- World War I draft registration forms for, among others, poet Robert Frost, dancer/actor Fred Astaire and actor John Barrymore
- A 1935 letter from the coach of the Green Bay Packers offering Gerald Ford a position on the team
- Telegrams congratulating John F. Kennedy on receiving the Democratic presidential nomination, including one from comedian Harpo Marx asking, “Do you need a harp player in your cabinet?”
- A letter from Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to President Kennedy on the occasion of the first manned space launch
- A telegram from the mayor of Kent, Ohio, asking the Ohio National Guard to quell the 1970 Kent State protests (that included the unfortunate wording, “I leave the mode and means of execution to your discretion.”)
“I am always learning something new, and since the volunteers get to choose the documents on which they work, I can exclusively pursue topics that interest me,” Smith said. “A lot of the material is fascinating to me.”
The process is simple. Smith logs in to the National Archives’ Citizen Archivist dashboard and searches for a topic of interest to him. The system then generates a list of documents that require transcribing, and Smith reads and transcribes old documents, many of them written in curling script.
“When I am finished, every word in that document is now accessible for modern search techniques,” Smith said. “People searching the transcribed documents will be able to draw on any word in the document, which greatly increases the ease and flexibility of research.”
Smith received his award during the Archivist’s Achievement Awards Ceremony, held in May at the National Archives in College Park, Md.