Turning historic Freedmen's Bureau Papers into digital documents at Virginia Tech

Published: Feb. 14, 2018 at 6:40 PM EST
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Documents from the late 1860's - once only searchable by carefully reading each handwritten word are now making a big leap into the digital age.

The Freedmen's Bureau Papers are becoming easier to view than they ever have before.

It's tedious work sitting in front of computers, typing words written more than 150 years ago, while catching a glimpse into a different world.

"Just to see what's happening in the day-to-day lives of basically the post war south and how these new relationships and the country is moving forward in these new relationships," said Christopher Miller, the digital humanities coordinator at Virginia Tech. "It's really quite compelling."

Wednesday people filtered through the Newman Library's Antheneaum, a place dedicated to digital research, to walk their fingers through these historic papers from the Freedmen's Bureau.

They then become digital, easily searchable, and accessible.

This is no small project at Virginia Tech, it's part of a much larger effort to preserve these documents for the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.

This was the Fredrick Douglass 200th Birthday Transcribe-a-ton an event hosted by the Colored Conventions Project that connected hundreds of people around the nation Wednesday with one task, to digitalize these papers. There are nearly two million of them that serve as the most extensive documentary sources available for investigating life for African Americans after the Civil War.

"So documents like this have an incredible historical significance to our country to families who are doing genealogy," Miller said.

It's this step back in time that's making research easier in our time.