Tuesday, February 15, 2011

My Goals for FromThePage

A couple of recent interactions have made me realize that I've never publicly articulated my goals in developing FromThePage. Like anyone else managing a multi-year project, my objectives have shifted over time. However, there are three main themes of my work developing web-based software for transcribing handwritten documents:
  1. Transcribing and publishing family diaries. FromThePage was developed to allow me and my immediate family to collaboratively transcribe the diaries of Julia Craddock Brumfield (fl. 1915-1936), my great-great grandmother. This objective has drifted over time to include the diaries of Jeremiah White Graves (fl. 1823-1878) as well, but despite that addition the effort is on track to achieve this original goal. Since the website was announced to my extended family in early 2009, Linda Tucker—a cousin whom I'd never met—has transcribed every single page I've put online, then located and scanned three more diaries that were presumed lost. The only software development work remaining to complete this goal is the integration of the tool with a publish-on-demand service so that we may distribute the diaries to family members without Internet access.
  2. Creating generally useful transcription software. As I developed FromThePage, I quickly realized that the tool would be useful to anyone transcribing, indexing and annotating handwritten material. It seemed a waste to pour effort into a tool that was only accessible to me, so a new goal arose of converting FromThePage into a viable multi-user software project. This has been a more difficult endeavor, but in 2010 I released FromThePage under the AGPL, and it's been adopted with great enthusiasm by the Balboa Park Online Collaborative for transcription projects at the San Diego Natural History Museum.
  3. Providing access to privately-held manuscripts. The vision behind FromThePage is to generalize my own efforts digitizing family diaries across the broader public. There is what I call an invisble archive--an enormous collection of primary documents that is distributed among the filing cabinets, cedar chests, and attics of the nation's nostalgic great aunts, genealogists, and family historians. This archive is inaccessible to all but the most closely connected family and neighbors of the documents' owners — indeed it's most often not merely inaccessible but entirely unknown. When effort is put into researching this archival material, it's done by amateurs like myself, and more often than not the results are na├»ve works of historical interpretation: rather than editing and annotating a Civil War diary, the researcher draws from it to create yet another Lost Cause narrative. I would love for FromThePage to transform this situation, channeling amateur efforts into digitizing and sharing irreplaceable primary material with researchers and family members alike. This has proven a far greater challenge than my proximate or intermediate goals: technically speaking the processing and hosting of page scans has been costly and difficult, while my efforts to recruit from the family history community have met with little success. Nevertheless I remain hopeful that events like this month's RootsTech conference will build the same online network among family researchers that THATCamp has among professional digital humanists.

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