The work of a Black studies pioneer is preserved at ‘Transcribe-a-Thon’

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By Dan Sears

Around 30 volunteers gathered in Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture on Wednesday afternoon for what one of them dubbed a “nerd party.”

The event, which was officially called “Transcribe-a-thon: Remaking the World of Arturo Schomburg,” coincided with the historian’s 150th birthday and aimed to translate some of his letters.

“Every year I mark his birthday,” said Vanessa K. Valdés, who was among the volunteers at the Schomburg Center. “So I’m so incredibly honored to be part of a crowd of people who are celebrating him.”

A volunteer at the Transcribe-a-thon sits at a computer while co-organizers Laura Helton (left) and Barrye Brown look on.

Photo by Bill Farrington

Arturo Schomburg was born in Puerto Rico in 1874 and is considered to be one of the founders of the academic discipline known as Black studies.

“There would be no field of Black studies had it not been for these earlier generations who built the collections, saved the materials, documented what was going on,” said Laura Helton, an assistant English and history professor at the University of Delaware and a co-organizer of the event.

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On Wednesday, volunteers were mostly focused on transcribing letters between Schomburg and others, including philosopher Alain Locke, illustrator Albert Smith and French writer René Maran.

Helton said they focused on the years from 1925 to 1931 because they illuminated how Schomburg and others were “invested in the idea that saving, preserving and building the Black history was urgent work.”

The transcribe-a-thon’s ultimate goal was to create a digital compilation of all the Schomburg papers housed at the Center and at Fisk University in Nashville, where Schomburg was a visiting curator in the 1930s. Helton said the scholarly edition will eventually make Schomburg’s collection accessible and available online so people won’t need to travel from library to library to read them.

The need for humans in an era of advanced technology

Groups of people huddled around tables and typed away on their computers as Schomburg Center staffers assisted those who needed help deciphering a word or letter on a particular document.

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An example of the cursive text that volunteers were transcribing.

Bill Farrington

Volunteer Monica White said noticing context clues and patterns eventually made transcribing the papers easier.

“You’ll see the pattern in the handwriting then start to say, ‘OK, this is how he makes his T’s and I’s,’” she said.

But in a world where computers can do almost anything, why ask humans to transcribe the documents?

Although document scanners are quite advanced, Helton said, they can’t read cursive, scribbles or annotations.

“The computer can’t make out what the human eye can make out in these documents,” she said.

More than a hobby, a political act

White said she volunteered because she wanted to help preserve history.

“I feel like I’m part of that legacy so that people coming after will have the information that previous researchers have not had,” she said.

Valdés said she considers herself a Schomburg “stan.” She wrote a book about his life titled “Diasporic Blackness: The Life and Times of Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.”

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She said the transcribe-a-thon was a “political stance” at a time when some U.S. school districts have banned books by Black authors and restricted teaching about the country’s historical treatment of Black people.

“This is fun and it is wonderful to be a part of this and it’s community building,” she said. “But it is also very much to say we are here and you cannot ignore us.”

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