Note: This post originally appeared on More of Us: Blog of the Arthur J. Morris Law Library

In the early 1820s, a young Harvard College graduate named Jared Sparks devised a plan to preserve the early history of the United States.  Like many Americans, Sparks sensed the closing of an age. Nearly fifty years had passed since the Declaration of Independence and many of the American Revolution’s central figures were dead or soon would be. George Washington took his last breath in December 1799 at Mount Vernon, six months after Patrick Henry succumbed to stomach cancer. In the 1820s, Thomas Jefferson remained busy overseeing the creation of the University of Virginia from his home at Monticello. From there he also maintained a lively correspondence with his friend and former adversary, John Adams, who spent his remaining years at home in Quincy, Massachusetts. Yet they would soon be dead, too.

One August day in 1823, Sparks determined to preserve the nation’s past as he meditated “on the importance of having a new History of America.” He recognized this difficult task would require him to “go to the fountain and read everything on the subject.” That meant finding original documents. Like his contemporary and fellow historian Peter Force, Sparks set out to find and transcribe copies of correspondence, reports, and a host of other material in private homes, court houses, and libraries across the nation and in Europe. He became a prolific documentary editor. Over the next thirty years he published numerous volumes, including The Diplomatic Correspondence of the American Revolution (12 vols.), Life of Gouverneur Morris (3 vols.), and The Works of Benjamin Franklin (10 vols.). His twelve volume edition of George Washington’s writings was his most significant achievement and served as a forerunner of the current Papers of George Washington Project at UVA.1

Sparks was a citizen historian long before the development of the modern historical profession in the late nineteenth century. His efforts to collect, transcribe, and arrange manuscripts into publishable form broadened what his fellow Americans could know about their own history.  In the nineteenth century that required traveling by horse or ship to archives in a quest for manuscripts. Today, professional historians and documentary editors use slightly faster modes of transportation to reach libraries and archives, but digital technology has also allowed us to bring the archive to the scholar and public. For example, you can now read George III’s thoughts on kingship in his own hand from the comfort of your office or explore a vast array of American women’s experiences in their own voices with students in your classroom.

Technology has also made the creation of historical knowledge participatory on a grand scale. Crowdsourcing transcriptions of manuscript collections has become an important way for professional librarians and scholars at institutions and projects large and small to work with people interested in the past. Manuscripts and rare books can languish in archival boxes unseen for years, keeping the stories they tell unintentionally hidden. Digitizing the documents and asking for the public’s help to transcribe them is a means to unlock their potential for future research and a form of civic engagement with our history.

The UVA Law Library Special Collection is delighted to announce that we have partnered with FromthePage.com to make some of our manuscripts available for public transcription. Inspired by our friends in The Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio at the University of Iowa Library and initiatives such as the Colored Conventions Project, we seek the help of citizen historians to tell the stories of the women and men who appear in our collections.

The law touches everyone in some way. That was as true in the past as it is today. The legal documents that we present on FromthePage.com capture how people in the United States, England, Scotland, and Italy lived and died. Their presence in a petition to a court, in a letter seeking favors from a government official, a catalog of their private property in a probate record, or in a lecture before eager young law students reveal much about them and the legal culture in which they lived.

What we hope to accomplish: As Jared Sparks knew the publication of transcribed manuscripts democratized historical knowledge and made it possible for amateur and professional historians alike to write better histories. We have the same goal in mind. Producing transcriptions of the Law Library’s legal manuscripts can make the material more accessible and encourage new research. It will also enable the Special Collections librarians to create better finding aides that will make research and discovery more efficient. Using a combination of technology and interpretation, the librarians will identify subjects, key themes, and relationships that can increase a collection’s usability.  Importantly, we would like teachers to use this tool and our material in the classroom to help their students understand the complexity of the past.

How can you help: Participating is easy.  Follow these simple steps:

1. Go to FromthePage.com and create a free username and password.

2. One you are logged in, take a moment to read the “Transcription Instructions” in the Frequently asked Questions. Then go to “Collections” and look for those collections owned by “UVA School of Law Library.” Click on a collection that interests you.  (More on our available collections below).

3. In your chosen collection, review the “About” section to get a sense of the documents inside. Then investigate the “Works.” Think of “Works” like a folder of documents in a box. Select the one you want.

4. One you are inside a Work, select a document page or several to read through first before transcribing. It is important to gain a sense of an author’s handwriting and language. This will help you better understand an author’s thoughts and objectives, stylistic choices, and common trends across items. It helps, too, to read through another transcriber’s work (if available) to prepare your brain for the content you will see on the manuscript page. Previous transcriptions are important reference tools for each untranscribed page.

Now you are ready to transcribe. Find a page to work on and click on “help transcribe this page.”

5. You will then be in transcription mode. You can adjust the position of the document to your likening. Be sure to look at the “Transcription Conventions” below the white transcription field to find information on how we would like you to transcribe the document.

6. Start to transcribe and be sure to save your work frequently.

7. Know something about the people in one of the documents? Please feel free to put a note in the “Note” field at the bottom of the screen. The more we understand about these documents the better stories we can tell about the people in them.

We do not expect perfect transcriptions. Sometimes unclear or confusing words befuddle even the best professional documentary editor. And it is always possible that another transcriber will come after you and identify a word that you could not. You can also mark a page for formal review and leave a note for the Special Collections team should you want us to take a closer look. Documentary editing is a communal process.

What is important is the knowledge that we can begin to gleam from the transcriptions and the stories we can tell about the past. Citizens historians are crucial to making that possible.

Manuscripts now available for transcription:

We have ranked these seven projects by degree of difficulty, which increases as one moves down the list.

1. The Papers of Roger B. Taney, 1792-1820

Roger B. Taney practiced law in his home state of Maryland long before he became an influential member of President Andrew Jackson’s cabinet and later authored the majority opinion in the infamous Dred Scott v. Sanford case (1857) as chief justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Taney (1777-1864) handled many of the cases in this collection just as he began his political ascent in state politics. The papers featured here are legal documents from his practice in Frederick, Maryland. Most items fall between 1805 and 1818. A few cases deal with slaves. These papers offer a unique opportunity to examine Taney’s legal career in its formative years before he rose to national prominence.

2. Practicing Law in the Early American Republic

The papers offered here feature documents written by major figures from the American Revolution era. These include Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and future Associate Justice of the Supreme Court; President James Monroe; future president John Quincy Adams; George Wythe, Thomas Jefferson’s mentor at the College of William and Mary; John Marshall, future chief justice of the Supreme Court; Charles Lee, the brother of Light Horse Harry Lee and uncle to Robert E. Lee; and Edmund Randolph, the first Attorney General of the United States.

3. The Papers of John B. Minor, 1845-1893

John B. Minor joined the faculty of the University of Virginia in 1845 at the age of thirty-two. An 1843 graduate of the university, Minor began his teaching career following a decade in private practice. Minor, along with James P. Holcombe, directed the law program at UVA amidst national debates over slavery and the American Civil War. Following the war, Minor and his colleagues presided over a post-war enrollment boom that saw over 100 students in the law program. Meanwhile, Minor took an active role in reforming Virginia’s public education system and published major legal works that established his reputation as one of the South’s legal leading minds.

The papers in this collection are wide and varied. They include Minor’s lecture notes, legal work, documentation on slaves, correspondence about secession in the Civil War, and post-war politics. They shed important light on Virginia in the Civil War era and illuminate the development of legal education during a period of national upheaval and reconstruction.

4. The Papers of Solicitors J.M Shugar and A. W. Vaisey, 1850-1914

The documents in this collection contain the stories of nineteenth century English men and women. Solicitors J. M. Shugar and A. W. Vaisey worked as probate and property lawyers in the town of Tring, Hertfordshire, in south central England. They handled wills, estates, and personal property issues for their clients from about 1850 through 1914. Shugar practiced law in Tring from roughly 1850 until his death in 1876. Vaisey, a newly minted lawyer, took over Shugar’s practice and made it his own. Fortunately, their combined papers have survived the years and make it possible for us to know about the lives of their clients in some detail.

Estate papers are crucial for historians’ ability to reconstruct the social world in which people lived. Transcribing wills, estate inventories, and associated documents will help historians reconstruct this nineteenth century world and offer relatives new insights into their ancestors.

5. Letter book for the Receiver of Wrecks at Kingston upon Hull, England, 1855-1861

This handwritten letter book was kept for James Sparrow, who worked for the British Board of Trade as the Receiver of Wrecks at Kingston upon Hull, 1855-1861. The volume begins with an index of correspondents and subjects. While the book primarily records copies of all outgoing mail, there are frequent notes about disposition of matters or copies of replies in the margins.

The letter book offers fascinating insight into British commercial and maritime activities from Kingston upon Hull, a port community in eastern England along the North Sea. Transcribing this manuscript could help inform our understanding of British maritime activities in the mid-nineteenth century. The letters record not just merchant activity and doomed vessels, but government patronage and power.

6. Scottish Court of Session Records Marginalia Project

This transcription opportunity is one of the most challenging and builds upon a larger initiative at the UVA Law Library to construct a digital archive and research platform centered on our Court of Session Collection. The Court of Session is Scotland’s supreme civil court and court of first instance. Eighteenth century Scottish court records are distinctive for the printed word. Unlike in England or in the American colonies and states, briefs, memorials, petitions, and depositions were printed and given to the court’s judges for their evaluation. Copies of these documents exist in other archives, but the Law Library’s are unique for the marginalia scribbled on them by their two owners, William Craig, Lord Craig, a judge on the court, and Andrew Skene, who briefly served as Scotland’s solicitor general.

The marginalia illuminates how Craig and Skene interpreted and studied Scots Law as they participated in the making of it. Craig, who owned the papers first and had the worse handwriting of the two, scribbled over cases in which he was involved with as a lawyer before he sat on the court. Skene, who either bought or inherited Craig’s papers, added on to the collection, and made his own notations next to Craig’s. Scottish judges did not issue formal written opinions as the U.S. Supreme Court does. A clerk took note of what the judges said in conversation on the bench. Later, these decisions appeared in legal digests. Skene and Craig often wrote on their papers what the judges said in the court room, probably as they heard them say it. The marginalia pulls back the current on law making and takes us into the room as it happened.

7. Guisticiati: Italian Manuscript List of Persons Condemned to Death in Venice, 726-1804

The law library knows very little about this manuscript. This project will require people with Italian language skills. Written in Italian and probably composed around 1804, this bound volume contains the names of 1,068 Venetians executed between 726 to 1804. It records names, dates of execution, crimes, and method of execution. Relatively few executions are listed until the late sixteenth century, and almost half of the total listed in this manuscript occurred in the seventeenth century. Crimes included conspiracy, rebellion, treason, theft, forgery, usury, homicide, sodomy, aggression and disturbing the peace. Death was usually by hanging or beheading, but occasionally included torture and display of the bodies.

Please contact Jim Ambuske (jpa4ad@virginia.edu) with any questions.

1. Journal entry, 18 August 1823, quoted in Lester J. Cappon, Jared Sparks: The Preparation of an Editor, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 90 (1978): 3. See this article for a concise overview of Sparks’s career in documentary editing. The UVA Law Library Special Collections owns a complete twelve-volume set of Sparks’s 1847 edition of The Writings of George Washington. Peter Force’s American Archives remains an important resource for students of the colonial period and American Revolution. The introduction to the digital edition of his Revolutionary era collection at Northern Illinois University Libraries contains a useful brief overview of his career. The site itself is a wonderful research tool. The UVA Law Library Special Collections holds a first edition set of the nine-volume printed work, which covers 1774 to 1776. Force published these volumes between 1837 and 1853.