Crowdsourcing the transcription of digitized archival records

Increasingly, researchers who use primary source materials hope their research can be done remotely through the use of digitized copies of archival records.  However, simply providing access to these digital surrogates is not always enough to optimize their utility for research. Though optical character recognition (OCR) technologies, under ideal circumstances, can do fairly well to provide keyword access to modern typescript documents, the contents of digitized handwritten and non-standard archival records are generally not searchable without the creation of modern transcriptions, translations or tags. Transcribing digitized archival records is an incredibly time-consuming and resource-heavy activity that archivists do not have time to undertake. Consequently, crowdsourcing the transcription of these types of materials can be a great way to share the work, introduce people to an institution’s archival holdings, provide experience working with primary sources, and add research value to those digitized records. This work, along with the human labour that goes into the digitization of primary source documents in the first place, forms the foundation of many digital scholarship research projects.

Given the current global restrictions on physical access to archival holdings due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this seems like a good moment to highlight the many projects that provide non-archivists with the opportunity to engage with primary source records like letters, photographs, government documents, maps, diaries, audio recordings and more. Whether you’re a history or literature buff seeking a quarantine project, an educator looking for online, experiential ways to engage your students with primary sources, or a home-schooling parent hoping to mix up your daily curriculum, there is a project out there for you!

United States

There are quite a few archives and libraries in the United States that manage their own crowdsourced projects for the public. While there are too many to list, here are several particularly interesting projects.

The Library of Congress’ By The People webpage details their current transcription campaigns, including Suffrage: Women Fight for the Vote, Letters to Lincoln, and Walt Whitman at 200.

The Newberry Library in Chicago has transcriptions projects relating to letters and diaries of Midwest families, American Indians, and US western expansion.

The New York Public Library has three projects of note currently available. For those map lovers with NYC knowledge is the Building Inspector project, which encourages participants to identify buildings and other details on historic maps. Foodies and food historians may want to participate in their What’s On The Menu project to transcribe the NYPL’s collection of restaurant menus. Also of note is their Community Oral History Project, which provides participants with the task of transcribing oral history recordings that document the lives of NYC citizens, their communities and neighbourhoods.

For fans of military history, the papers of the US War Department, which existed only between 1790 and 1800, once thought lost to time, are available online, and a transcription project is underway.

The Smithsonian Institution has a transcription center relating to its various branches. Current projects include astronaut Sally Ride’s handwritten speech notes and the diary of an American teenager during World War II, Doris Sidney Blake.

The US National Archives describes its crowdsourced projects as citizen archivist missions and organizes them by level of complexity, for beginners and more experienced transcribers. Current options include Alan Turing’s Treatise on the Enigma and a 1967 criminal docket in the matter of U.S. vs. Cassius Clay Jr. aka Muhammad Ali.

On a smaller institutional scale, there are several other US projects worth highlighting. The Old Weather project might appeal to sailing fans, where one can transcribe weather observations from mid-19th century ships’ logs. The DIY History project, from the University of Iowa Libraries’ Special Collections, University Archives and Iowa Women’s Archives, allows participants to keyword search documents to transcribe, including their collection of science fiction fanzines. Hamilton College’s American Prison Writing Archive allows supporters to transcribe handwritten essays submitted by inmates to Prison Legal News, making searchable writing that documents the experiences of American prisoners.


Canadian archives and libraries, plagued by perpetual resource and funding issues, have fewer crowdsourced projects than our counterparts in the United States. This is a good reminder that even projects that utilize volunteer labour require staff oversight and management, which is not always easy for small institutions to facilitate.

However, Library and Archives Canada (LAC) has gotten into the game with their Co-Lab tool, which allows participants to work on a variety of transcription, translation and tagging challenges while working with LAC’s digitized records. Items like diaries, politicians’ letters, photographs, index cards, First World War records and government documents relating to Indigenous peoples are some of the materials available to work on. Not surprisingly, their transcription project for the 1918-1919 Spanish Flu Pandemic records is now 100% complete.

The Nova Scotia Archives is another government archives with a transcription pilot project. Its current featured pr is Commissioner of Public Records – refugee Negroes.

Edited to add:

The Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County also currently hosts a crowdsourced project that invites participants to transcribe the 1871 Hastings County assessment roll. The University of Guelph Library has its own transcription project that encourages participants to transcribe the diaries of rural Ontarians dating from 1800 to 1960 on their Rural Diary Archive website.

United Kingdom

Jeremy Bentham fans should check out University College London’s Transcribe Bentham project, which aims to increase access to original and unstudied Bentham manuscripts.

The British Library has a separate website for its crowdsourced projects, Libcrowds. Current highlighted projects include transcribing digitized catalogue cards and transcribing the contents of historical theatre playbills.


Last but certainly not least is Zooniverse, a well-known platform for what they call “people-powered research”. Zooniverse provides a space for institutions that may not have the resources to host and promote a crowdsourced project on their own. There are always a wide variety of projects available on different subject matter. Here is just a selection of current transcription projects:

Anti-slavery manuscripts from the Boston Public Library

A multi-institutional project to translate and transcribe the Cairo Geniza

A project to track the lives and records of Australian prisoners.

A multi-institutional project to transcribe the military records of African-American Civil War soldiers

A Universidade de Coimbra project to track plant species and scientists from 19th correspondence [correspondence in Portuguese]

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Highlights from Special Collections: Revisiting Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha

In this blog post, CTASC practicum student Brian Omran discusses Japanese graphic novelist Osamu Tezuka and his multi-volume work, Buddha.

Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) is renowned as one of the greatest graphic novel artists in the world. He earned the moniker “the Godfather of Manga”, referring to the Japanese style of cartoons and comics that he created. Famous for making breakthroughs with the medium in the 1950s, he helped manga gain tremendous popularity not only within Japan, but internationally as well. He created many award-winning graphic novels including Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, and Buddha. The Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections has the complete eight-volume set of Buddha, which tells the story of Gautama Buddha in illustrated form. The series was originally published between 1972 and 1983. American publishing company Vertical, specialists in bringing Japanese-language graphic novels to the North American market, issued these English-language translated volumes in both hardback and paperback between 2002 and 2007.

Buddha is quite different from other examples of manga, as it bears closer resemblance to Western and almost Disney-esque cartoons with its images compared to how the Japanese version of the medium transformed over the decades. Many of the drawings are smooth and curvy, which creates a stronger sense of whimsy when reading the story. While modern manga still often makes use of smooth images, there’s also a mix of more angular and sharp images to create more striking impressions. In this way, Buddha effectively shows Osamu’s unique early style of manga illustrating.

Another notable element about the illustrations is their lack of colour. To those more familiar with Western graphic novels, this may seem like an odd choice. Most manga is printed entirely in black and white, even in the modern day, as a cost-saving measure so that more people can access the medium easily. This also means that the style of illustrations in Buddha focuses entirely on creative uses of black and white shades to create impressive visuals.

While the lack of colour may prove initially puzzling to those unfamiliar with manga, those who are at least casual readers of the medium will themselves be confused by Buddha’s reading order. These English translations of Buddha are unique because publisher Vertical printed the volumes so that the story is read left to right, meaning all the images are mirrored. In the traditional Japanese style, manga is written and illustrated in such a way that the original is meant to be read right to left. Most modern English translations of manga adhere to this convention.

Buddha is a unique series of graphic novels that highlight both early elements of manga that are less commonplace today, as well as certain elements that have persisted as staples of the medium. It is just one example from the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections’ Graphic Novel Collection.

Volume One

Volume Two

Volume Three

Volume Four

Volume Five

Volume Six

Volume Seven

Volume Eight

To search for other graphic novels in this collection, use York University Libraries catalog’s advanced search option.

Then perform a call number search for “GRN”.

Then filter your results by selecting YorkU location “Scott Special Collections”. This will bring up a list of the books in this collection, which can then be searched further by keyword, author and title.

Other Osamu Tezuka resources:

Vox article about Osamu Tezuka biography

The experimental short films of Osamu Tezuka [includes video]

Tezuka and the dawn of TV animation [Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum]

Inside the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum in Osaka, Japan

Revival of the god of manga [Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum]

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Celebrating Black History Month – Beverley Salmon

Written by Brian Omran, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections practicum student

The Clara Thomas Archives holds a number of fonds that document the lives of Black Canadians. In this last week of Black History Month, we’re highlighting the work of Toronto politician and activist Beverley Salmon.

Beverley Noel Salmon was born in Toronto in the 1930s to a Jamaican father, Herbert McLean Bell Sr., and a Canadian mother, Violet Bryan. In the early 1950s, she trained in nursing at Wellesley Hospital and received her public health nurse certification in 1954 from the University of Toronto. She began her nursing career in earnest in 1956 in Detroit. During this period, she became involved with the civil rights movement, and this experience inspired her to continue her work as an activist when she returned to Toronto in the 1960s.

Salmon sought to improve race relations through her involvement with anti-racism training and initiatives, first as co-founder of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and later as co-founder of the Black Educators Working Group. In 1985, she became Toronto’s first Black female city councillor, representing North York until her retirement from municipal politics in 1997. She was also the first Black woman to serve as an Ontario Human Rights Commissioner. Salmon worked with the Race Relations Committee for the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, served on the Toronto Transit Commission Board from 1989 to 1994, and was a member of the Ontario Status of Women Council and a board member of the Obsidian Theatre Company (the Obsidian Theatre Company’s archives are also housed here at the Clara Thomas Archives).

For her lifetime of civil rights activism and public service, Salmon received many awards and honours over the years, including the African Canadian Achievement Award for Excellence in Politics (1995), Federation of Canadian Municipalities Roll of Honour recipient (1999), the Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee Medal (2012), the Order of Ontario (2016), and the Order of Canada (2017).

The Beverley Salmon fonds here at the Clara Thomas Archives contains information about her work as an activist and politician, including records pertaining to her role as North York and Metro Toronto councillor and her work with the Federation of Canadian Municipalities. Records include correspondence, meeting materials, reports, conference materials, and newspaper clippings. These records document Salmon’s commitment as an activist and public servant as well as her contributions to the anti-racism movement in Toronto and beyond.

More about Beverley Salmon:

CityTV Black History Month profile on Beverley Salmon

David V.J. Bell on trip to family homestead in Jamaica [article]

Beverley Salmon’s appointment to the Order of Canada by Ron Fanfair [article]

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Celebrating Black History Month – Archie Alleyne

Written by Brian Omran, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections practicum student

The Clara Thomas Archives holds a number of fonds that document the lives of Black Canadians. This year for Black History Month, we will be highlighting two of our newer acquisitions, beginning with Toronto jazz drummer Archie Alleyne.

Photo by Flickr user ataelw (CC BY 2.0)

Born in Toronto in 1933, Alleyne began playing in music clubs across Toronto in his 20s. While performing at these venues, he rubbed shoulders with other great jazz musicians like Billie Holiday and Oliver Jones. With the latter, Alleyne would become an international artist, touring countries across Africa and the Caribbean.

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Not only was he a talented musician, Alleyne was also the co-owner of The Underground Railroad Restaurant, a Toronto soul food restaurant, and a fervent activist for the musical arts. He fought for Black representation in the Toronto Jazz Festival and to have jazz musicians included in the Canada Council for the Arts’ funding. He also founded the not-for-profit Archie Alleyne Scholarship Fund to help support young musicians pursue jazz studies at an academic level.

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For his accomplishments in music and activism, Alleyne received the Order of Canada and the Toronto Musicians’ Association Lifetime Achievement Award in 2011.

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Archie Alleyne passed away in 2015 at the age of 82. By all accounts, he led a rich life and always worked to help others wanting to pursue their passions for jazz. Alleyne was a truly talented drummer whose achievements and desire to help his community will be remembered by future generations.

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The Archie Alleyne fonds contains a variety of material pertaining to Alleyne’s long music career, the Underground Railroad restaurant, his philanthropy and activism. These materials include photographs, event posters and tour ephemera, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia, correspondence, research files relating to Toronto-area jazz musicians, scholarship files, drafts and research for his memoir (Colour Me Jazz: The Archie Alleyne Story), video recordings of performances, and audio recordings of interviews with jazz musicians. All shine a light on Alleyne’s life and career, offering insights into not only his personal story, but also the history of jazz music in Canada.

More about Archie Alleyne:

The Life and Times of Archie Alleyne, Toronto’s Greatest Jazz Drummer

Ross Porter interviews Archie Alleyne

Archie Alleyne on his career in jazz  (Heritage Toronto)

Archie Alleyne & The Evolution of Jazz Ensemble

Archie Alleyne playing with the Don Thompson Quintet

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Three community events explore the city’s cultural and historical diversity

As part of the annual Myseum of Toronto’s Intersections Festival, the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections (CTASC) of York University Libraries and its community partners invite you to a film night, an interactive exhibition, and a walking tour to explore the city’s cultural and historical diversity.

These three event share York University research and archival material with the community at large thanks to the work of York archivists Anna St. Onge and Katrina Cohen-Palacios, York History professor Sakis Gekas (GCHP), York History PhD graduates Jay Young (Archives of Ontario) and Christopher Grafos (GCHP), York AMPD Masters graduate Ananya Ohri (Regent Park Film Festival), and York History PhD Candidate Michael Akladios (CCHP).

Motion Pictures: Immigration Films from the Vaults of Toronto’s Archives

On Thursday, March 8, from 6pm to 7:30pm at the Palmerston Toronto Public Library Theatre, Motion Pictures: Immigration Films from the Vaults of Toronto’s Archives will demonstrate the role of moving images within the creation and dissemination of stories of immigration, and the integral role of Toronto-area archives in the preservation of such films.

CTASC and the Archives of Ontario will screen archival film footage that explores how the medium of film contributes towards – and sometimes questions – narratives of immigration and multiculturalism, and the importance of archives as repositories for key records of the immigrant past.

At the event, the Regent Park Film Festival (RPFF) will present their innovative project Home Made Visible which aims to address an important gap in the preservation and celebration of the home movie footage of Indigenous and Visible Minority Canadians. CTASC is the RPFF’s archival partner in this project.

RSVP on the Facebook event page.

The Journeys of the Copts and their Artifacts

From March 12 to 24, St Mark’s Coptic Museum and the Coptic Canadian History Project (CCHP) will present the Journeys of the Copts and their Artifacts, showcasing the culture, immigration, and achievements of Egypt’s Coptic Christian diaspora in Toronto and Canada through three initiatives in public programming.

A multimedia talk on March 12, 22 (6:30pm) and 24 (3pm) will explore the topic of “St. Mark’s Parish: Copts’ Journey Through Toronto’s Places of Worship, 1962-1978.” Secondly, a new exhibition will share the museum’s history and milestones alongside the stories, challenges, and achievements of 33 Coptic professionals. While displaying the museum’s first artefacts and memorabilia, the museum will also launch a historic series of contemporary narrative icons by iconographer Victor Asaad Fakhoury, which masterfully chronicle events that have affected the Coptic Church and Copts in Egypt since the so-called “Arab Spring” in 2011.

RSVP to take the free shuttle bus to the event.

Gateway to Greektown: A Historical Walking Tour of the Danforth

Image of intersection of Danforth and Broadview with parked cars, streetcar tracks and store fronts with some signs reading "Restaurant, sodas"; "coca-cola"; "bakery"

York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Toronto Telegram fonds, ASC03483.

On March 24 and 25 at 10:30am and 2:30pm, Gateway to Greektown: A Historical Walking Tour of the Danforth will be led by the Greek Canadian History Project (GCHP) to illuminate Greek immigrant life and the history of Greektown in previously unexplored ways. The event will take participants to important historical sites that currently escape our collective memory.

Accompanied by materials from CTASC, the tour will highlight political, gender, spiritual, and cultural elements of Greek life on the Danforth from the 1960s to the 1990s, when Danforth was a space where newly-arrived, predominantly semi-rural Greek immigrants intersected with and shaped Toronto’s urban setting.

Tours taking place on March 25 will occur before and after the Greek Independence Day parade, which is an annual commemorative event in Toronto’s Greektown.

RSVP to attend the walking tour.

More information on our partners, please visit the website of the:


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Singing the Toronto Subway Song

Compliation of sheet music with the cover image of subway construction on top with the title "the toronto subway song" and the lyrics "in a little while, weèll be riding the new subway"

Mel Hamill composed The Toronto Subway Song in 1950 during the construction of the city’s first subway.

In less than a week, travel to the university will reach rocket speeds with the opening of two subway stations on campus.

While the commute nowadays may be described as rough, try and think back to the opening of Keele Campus in 1965 when the Bloor-Danforth line was still under construction. In fact, back then, the subway climbed no further north than St. George and Eglinton stations!

The commute to York University sure has changed over the years.

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