Civil War Diaries Enter Cyberspace

civil war 041aIn the fall of 1862, The Rev. Joseph T. Brown volunteered to serve as chaplain of the 6th Maryland Volunteers.  On his arrival in camp near Williamsport, Maryland, Brown wrote to his family in Cherry Hill, Cecil County, “I took from my pocket yesterday the apple that Rebecca Carter gave me and as soon as I saw it the Sabbath School came to my mind and then what do you think came next, the tear in my eye and then this morning when I was unpacking my trunk I found the jelly treat little Lue Gilmor gave me and then I turned child again but I must stop I can scarcely see the line.  Love to you all.”’

That’s just one example of the human side of the war that pitted brother against brother and father against son, the American Civil War.  One hundred and fifty years ago, Rev. Brown not only wrote many letters home, but kept 2 war time diaries, including one he wrote while a prisoner of war at the infamous Libby Prison in Richmond, Virginia.  Now, for the first time, the diaries are available on-line, thanks to the efforts of the University of Delaware’s College of Arts and SciencesInterdisciplinaryHumanitiesResearchCenter and the History Honor Society, Phi Alpha Theta.

Earlier this year, the original diaries were electronically scanned and placed on line. The students are in the process of transcribing these hand written diaries, so everyone may read them. Dr. Kasey Grier, director of the Museum Studies Program and the HistoryMediaCenter at the University of Delaware, says the transcription will be done by students in a process called “Crowd Sourcing.”

“Crowd Sourcing,” according to Dr. Grier, “is when students in remote locations, review the hand written text and try their hand at transcribing it.  They then submit their contributions which are reviewed and put up on line.  Eventually, all of the 2 hand written diaries will be available for anyone to access and read.”

Dr. Grier says the “Crowd Sourcing” idea is being taken a step further on Monday evening by turning the project into a party.  “On Monday, April 8th from 4 -8 pm we will be holding a transcription party in the History Conference Room, room 236 of John Munroe Hall in Newark. This is designed as an ‘open house’ to allow History undergraduates and grad students to stop in and have hands on time with the transcription software, ‘FromThePage,’ and to try their hand at transcribing the diary. As we initially opened the project to the History Honor Society, Phi Alpha Theta,” Dr. Grier says, “we are now opening the project to the entire History Department. We will be working collaboratively on the white board, as well as have ‘transcription stations’ set up in the room.”

Historical Society of Cecil County Operations Manager, Mike Dixon, says the society welcomes this collaboration with the University of Delaware and hopes to strengthen it because it broadens the society’s horizons and reach. “The University’s focus is in the area of the digital humanities, which allows us to take largely unused and un-accessed collections and get the material out to a broader audience for study. It is also a preservation method in that it reduces the handling and makes interpretation much easier.”

The University’s Brown diary project web site will be linked to the historical society’s Civil War web page for anyone with an interest and a computer to read and even try their hand at transcribing the documents.

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Researcher Jo Ann Gardner does it the old way. She uses a magnifying glass to examine a 19th century diary.


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