Fairfield University students gathered inside the DiMenna Nyselius Library to join thousands of nationwide volunteers in helping transcribe documents for the national Frederick Douglass Day celebration, which happens every Feb. 14.

This year, organizers partnered with the Library of Congress to digitally transcribe more than 9,300 documents over three hours.

While the event has been celebrated for eight consecutive years, the 2024 Transcribe-A-Thon at the University’s library will mark the event’s second edition on campus. 

According to the Head of Library Outreach & Communications, Lisa Thornell, the service event celebrates Black history and involves students in an active role in making historical documents “more accessible” for others. 

This is fun to do. It contributes to the understanding and celebration of Black history and Black culture at the same time as it helps make knowledge available.

Fairfield University English Professor Betsy Bowen

“We are transcribing important primary source documents today with other libraries around the country, to improve search, access and discovery of Black history,” said Thornell in a written statement to The Rearview

She mentioned that this year’s event saw almost double the number of students participating and in the event’s first two hours, Fairfield University participants had transcribed more than 58 documents.

As part of the occasion, students were greeted with music of Black artists, food and a birthday cake to celebrate Douglass’ birthdate. According to Douglass Day organizers, the celebration of his life on Valentine’s Day comes from his family, since Douglass never knew his actual birthdate.

For English Professor Betsy Bowen, the celebration of Douglass Day marks an important move to make materials accessible to people who, otherwise, would not be able to understand nor disseminate them with others. 

She also highlighted the celebration characteristic of the event.

“This is fun to do. It contributes to the understanding and celebration of Black history and Black culture at the same time as it helps make knowledge available,” said Bowen in an interview as she reflected on the event’s reach. 

Bowen, who in 2010 was recognized by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching as Connecticut’s Professor of the Year, emphasized that while it might be hard for students to transcribe 19th-century documents, students should have no worries about making mistakes. 

As part of the event, participants can be involved in transcribing documents for the first time or reviewing transcripts of other volunteers. 

For those participating in the library, Douglass Day fact sheets and guidelines on correctly transcribing digital documents were made accessible and library staff were present to help students and  faculty present.

In addition, the event featured a virtual livestream with the national organizers who interviewed historians and reflected on Douglass’ work and legacy.

This year’s transcription involved the General Correspondence series of the Frederick Douglass Papers, and while the event was on Valentine’s Day, those interested in joining the efforts can do so on the Library of Congress website.

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