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MSU libraries participate in Douglass Day Transcribe-a-thon in efforts to transcribe historical letters

February 15, 2024
<p>A guest during Frederick Douglass’ transcribe-a-thon works to transcribe one of his correspondences during his birthday even at the MSU Library on Feb. 14, 2024.</p>

A guest during Frederick Douglass’ transcribe-a-thon works to transcribe one of his correspondences during his birthday even at the MSU Library on Feb. 14, 2024.

Though Feb. 14 is most commonly recognized as Valentine's Day, one national effort that falls on “love day” is beginning to gain more traction all across America.

Frederick Douglass birthday, also known as Douglass Day, is a day when people celebrate and honor the life of Frederick Douglass and the letters that the many people of the 19th century composed to the public figure. 

These letters were written to Frederick Douglass by peers, colleagues and everyday people. In efforts to make these letters more recognizable and accessible, Michigan State, along with many other institutions around the country, have partnered to create the “Douglass Day Transcribe-a-thon.” 

The main goal of this event is to have people from the community transcribe all 8,731 pages of Douglass' received letters and writings in one day. Assistant Director of Digital Humanities Kristen Mapes said the event allows the community to bond. 

“The event provides an opportunity for people to come together,” Mapes said. “I'm most excited about seeing how we're able to build a little bit of community through the activity of transcribing, sharing cake together, and seeing how this can connect our work to the libraries, students and faculty all around campus to build the future.” 

This event, which was hosted Feb. 14 at the MSU Library, brought in a flurry of participants. Participants could also help themselves to baked goods from the Sweet Encounters bakery to celebrate Douglass' birthday.

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Along with Michigan State, other universities like Arizona, Michigan, and Marquette, participated in the transcribe-a-thon. The nationwide effort was clear at MSU's event, as a Zoom call with other participating institutions was projected onto the wall. 

While the Douglass Day Transcribe-a-thon has been an annual event for over the past half decade at many institutions, this is the first year that Michigan State will participate, and Mapes hopes that this isn't the last. 

Before becoming an abolitionist, Frederick Douglass was a Black man born into slavery. Upon gaining his freedom in 1838, Douglass began working for the American Anti-Slavery Society and founded an abolitionist newspaper, "The North Star." Douglass worked with key public figures like Abraham Lincoln and Susan B. Anthony to advocate for freedom, all while traveling the world to give speeches to enlighten the public on the harsh realities of slavery. 

"He was able to speak to white audiences, as well as Black audiences, about what slavery really looked like and what it meant," Mapes said. "He put it in the framing for political theory to articulate how it was a problematic and wrong institution while advocating for the humanity of enslaved people.” 

Along with Mapes, graduate student LiChail Gaines sees Douglass' work as an act of "courageousness" and "inspiration." 

“The first thing I think about when I hear Frederick Douglass is advocacy,” Gaines said. “As a Black woman, especially at a predominantly white institution, there is an inspiration for advocacy. These letters and being here have even emboldened me to advocate not just for myself but for my peers and colleagues.”

Gaines, who was at the event transcribing a letter, described a feeling of “awe” when working on the letters. 

The letters, which were in picture form on a computer document, were written on what seemed like scrolls of old paper, with inked cursive writing that was barely readable. Gaines was shocked by how traditional the writings were, and said she could see why the letters needed to be transcribed. 

Gaines believes this transcribe-a-thon is important because it not only allows the transcribers to understand what was written, but it also gives other people who can’t read the letters access them and give them the ability to unlock a portion of history. 

“The impact isn’t just on people back in the 1800s, it’s my peers, and now quite frankly there will be a new generation that will have access to this,” Gaines said. “(Douglass) defied odds and here we are being able to take a piece of history and make it more accessible to others. It’s impressive.” 

Another transcriber was Associate Professor of Theater Studies Philip Effiong, who transcribed the letters in hopes of gaining a new understanding of what Douglass was all about. 

“I didn’t know that I could actually do this, so I’m really getting into it, and I’m learning about Douglass and how he and his followers communicated,” Effiong said. “These transcriptions have absolutely made an impact on people today. He was selfless in his pursuits, and it is quite clear that he had a great value of the sanctity of human life, which is timeless and isn’t limited to any society or any time in history. It’s just a part of the human reality, and we all want that.” 

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For Effiong, it’s not just the transcription of letters that excites him, but also the history behind his own life. This part of history that Douglass represented and what the letters entailed made Effiong think back to his own history, which extends from Nigeria and West Africa to the United States. He said that it’s a part of his history, making him even more enamored with the event. 

While both Gaines and Effiong transcribed the letters, it was Integrated Studies Assistant Professor Amber Bryant who worked on the review portion of the transcribe-a-thon. 

Reviews are completed or partially completed transcriptions of the letters that are sent to a reviewer, who looks over the letter and transcription to see if all the information is accurate. If the information isn't accurate, the reviewer edits the transcription to fit the letter. Once the review process is complete, the transcribed letter is uploaded to the computer. 

Some of the letters Bryant read peaked her interest, with many of them being “personal,” she said. One letter she reviewed was from Douglass' colleague, who was traveling and going into detail about their personal life and family. It was letters like this that made Bryant realize what Douglass was all about. 

Bryant said events like the transcribe-a-thon that allow the public to read historical and personal documents can help create a larger buzz for transcribing, allowing important history, like Douglass' story and work, to be told. 

“For a lot of people, and especially for African Americans, he’s a trailblazer for overcoming and being successful,” Bryant said. “Anybody who feels like they’re a part of the forgotten or were not thought of as being valuable for society, they can relate to this story of perseverance and believing in themselves and overcoming obstacles.” 

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