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A night at the museum? Nah, but Smithsonian needs volunteers for digitization project

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The Smithsonian Institution, a group of research centers and museums administered by the U.S. government, is seeking volunteers for its digitization project.

On Tuesday, Aug. 12, the Smithsonian launched its Transcription Center website for public use. The project's aim is to get assistance from people to help the institution digitize various handwritten contents.

The Smithsonian, whose extensive collections include nine research facilities and objects, works of art and specimens estimated at 137 million, revealed that it has already created digital images of several million objects, documents and other specimens present in its current collection. However, many documents in its collection are handwritten and some of them have text, which a computer cannot decipher. The institution suggests that human-assisted transcription can help them get digitized, which will help the items get searched and open opportunities for research work.

The Smithsonian recently announced that it is inviting the public to help in the digitization project.

"We are thrilled to invite the public to be our partners in the creation of knowledge to help open our resources for professional and casual researchers to make new discoveries," says Wayne Clough, Smithsonian's Secretary. "For years, the vast resources of the Smithsonian were powered by the pen; they can now be powered by the pixel."

The institution says that it has staff who are working in the project, but the vast amount of data in collections held at Smithsonian will make it difficult to transcribe the contents. Public volunteers can speed up the digitization process.

"Calling researchers, educators, citizen scientists and history buffs: We are actively seeking volunteers to join this world-wide effort. With your help, we can make our vast collections in art, history, and science more accessible to anyone with a curious spirit," the institution says on its Transcription web page.

Smithsonian has created a webpage on its Transcription Center website, which will assist volunteers in understanding the digitization process. The webpage suggests that volunteers do not have to worry about italic or bold texts when transcribing content. Once a specific content is transcribed to text, it is also reviewed by a reviewer to make necessary changes.

Volunteers can help transcribe field notebooks collected by the National Museum of Natural History that include botanical collecting in China, photographs from Brazil, and the Smithsonian-Roosevelt Expedition; they can transcribe modernist painter Oscar Bluemner's painting diary; or transcribe handwritten collection labels from the U.S. Herbarium, which holds some 5 million plant specimens and is part of the National Museum of Natural History.

"It's OK if you don't have time to complete the entire transcription. Even adding a sentence or two makes it easier for the next person to work on it. Often, two or more volunteers need to work together to finish a transcription," per the instructions of the Transcription Center website.

In 2013, the Smithsonian started a beta project, which included over 1,000 volunteers. They were able to successfully transcribe 13,000 pages of handwritten contents to digitized form. This year, the institution is hoping to get more support from the public and digitize even more handwritten content, which will help research work for scholars as well as regular browsers.

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