2013 Award for Access

This page from the diary of George M. Shearer (dated 1863) is one of the artifacts featuredon the DIY History website. Shearer fought in the Civil War as a soldier in the 17th Iowa Infantry, Company E. This diary describes his daily experiences, including his time atthe Battle of Vicksburg. From Civil War Diaries and Letters, Abraham Lincoln Collection. Courtesy of University of Iowa Libraries, Special Collections Dept.

Jennifer Wolfe, Digital Scholarship Librarian at the University of Iowa, has received the 2013 Primary Source Award for Access. She was the driving force in the development of University of Iowa’s crowd-sourcing DIY History initiative, which features five collections, beginning with "Civil War Diaries and Letters."

The DIY History initiative has made special collections more discoverable with enhanced cataloging and searchable text, while engaging the public to interact with primary source materials in new ways. The initial experiment was launched in spring 2011 to coincide with the Civil War sesquicentennial, and featured a collection of Civil War diaries and letters. The developers note that the initial website "was surprisingly low-tech but the project generated unimaginable enthusiasm, spreading internationally through word of mouth. In a year, volunteer contributors transcribed over 15,000 pages." An enhanced platform was launched in October 2012; today, nearly 32,000 manuscript pages in total have been transcribed.

DIY History offers opportunities for the public to transcribe, review, or tag digitized material from five collections in the University of Iowa Libraries’ Special Collections, University Archives, and Iowa Women’s Archives. In addition to the "Civil War Diaries," the collections include: "Iowa Women’s Lives: Letters and Diaries"; "Building the Transcontinental Railroad"; "The Nile Kinnick Collection" (all-American Iowa football player who died in World War II); and "The Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks," a historical collection assembled by the late Chicago chef Louis Szathmary. The project posts interesting items from revealed content, such as a rhyming recipe for "A Paradise pudding" in an 1860 English cookbook, calling for "the same fruit which Eve once did cozen/ When pared & well chopp'd at least half a dozen."

Front cover of an American cookbook,c. 1925, with an original color drawing. This manuscript cookbook, among others, is also featured on the DIY History website. From Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks. Courtesy of University of Iowa Libraries, Special Collections Dept.

Anyone can contribute to the site by selecting a manuscript page and entering a full-text transcription in a simple online form, or by registering to tag an image collection accessible on Flickr. The DIY History website indicates, "While typeset texts can be scanned with OCR... there’s no such easy fix for primary source materials like handwritten documents or photographs. Making these items findable requires time-consuming manual labor to transcribe or describe each item—a process that doesn’t scale with traditional library workflows."

The project has captured the public imagination. After publication of an October 2012 article by Wolfe in Iowa Now, word of the site spread quickly, drawing from a wide breadth of news sources, from Library Journal, to personal blogs, to Wired UK, to CNN. A commentator on the digital humanities resource site hastac.org noted, "It opens up the practice of history, allowing people who aren’t formally historians... to see what it is that historians and archivists do... it allows us to overcome some of the limitations of technology and funding resources. [And] what better way to have students... learn how to read primary sources in an analytical manner, seeing themes and contradictions and problems with the historical record as they go?"