DIY History Category


The DIY History transcription API

Since the launch of the Civil War Diaries & Transcription Project, the goal of DIY History has been to promote the University of Iowa Libraries digital collections. Part of this mission includes making the trove of transcriptions from handwritten diaries, manuscripts, and letters widely available to researchers for use in their work.

At the time of this writing there are 61,987 transcribed pages spanning nine public collections in such wide-ranging historical topics as pioneer diaries, war letters, culinary manuscripts and recipes, railroadiana, and specimen cards. Each page has been transcribed and checked by one or more volunteers from around the world. This type of crowdsourcing effort transcends our ability as a staff to catalog, display, and transcribe every handwritten item in the library.  A project such as DIY History invites library users to do more than just visit and browse, but to actively participate in and transform the archive by typing what they read.

Participatory Archives

While DIY History items have always been indexed by search engines, there hasn’t been a robust method of making the entire body of transcription text available to researchers. Previously, a scholar interested in mining the entire collection of cookbooks from the Szathmary collection, for example, would need to perform hundreds of tedious queries using simple keywords. A better method of making our transcription data available was needed.

Early in the Fall 2015 semester, we debuted the DIY History Application Programming Interface. This API provides researchers with the ability to access much more metadata on each file than is displayed on the DIY History website. The API makes DIY History a platform on which to build applications, research projects, and other potentially innovative tools using the transcription data provided by our volunteers.

Read more about APIs

This opens the possibility to text analysis not practical before, even at the web-scale of crowdsourcing. Having programmatic access to the item-level and file-level metadata means researchers can use machine learning techniques to extract and analyze named entities. Just as it’s not feasible for a small staff to transcribe 100,000 scanned pages, it’s not feasible for a small crowd to tag an arbitrary number of entities each time a new research question arises. This is a realistic task, however, for a properly trained machine.

To demonstrate this idea, here is a simple entity extractor using DIY History transcription text, an NER module provided by MonkeyLearn, and Google’s Geocoding service to return latitude and longitude values for extracted place names.

Historical Manuscript Entity Extraction


To test this demo app, enter any DIY History file ID (the last parameter of a transcription URL) and it will automatically return any person, place, or organization it detects. This is a probabilistic method, so results may not be accurate is there is ambiguity. For this demonstration, each ID is entered manually, but a production application could iterate through thousands of records, storing results in a database.

For example in the following transcription URL, the ID is 73120

Here are a few IDs to get started with:

73120 – Eno family letters, November 1813-September 1827 1824-09 Page 1

2392 – Nile Kinnick correspondence, December 1942-March 1943 1942-12-13: Page 01

33315 – Wise-Clark family papers, December 1864-February 1865 1864-12-18-Page 04


If you have questions about the DIY History API contact



DIY Natural History

Together with the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History, the UI Libraries launched a new DIY History collection, the Egg Cards, a little over a month ago.  These field note cards were collected by amateur ornithologists during the late 1800s/early 1900s in Iowa and elsewhere, for the purposes of identifying egg specimens in nests.  Being handwritten, these cards haven’t been searchable, but with the power of crowdsourced transcription, will become a searchable database to accompany the museum’s collection of bird eggs.

EggCards transcription form

EggCards transcription form

This represents the first “natural science” project in the DIY History program, following the success of citizen science initiatives such as Zooniverse’s Galaxy Zoo and the Smithsonian’s Bumblebee Project.  Participation in the Egg Cards bounced with the release of an IowaNow article, and the 1900 cards are nearing halfway completion.  Join the fun – while you still can!


Contributing in code

University of Iowa Libraries at

University of Iowa Libraries at

For librarians, particularly those in academic settings, an important part of the job is contributing to the development of the profession; traditionally, this has included tasks such as giving presentations at conferences and publishing articles in scholarly journals. But thanks to the evolving nature of our work and to innovations on the part of our developers, the University of Iowa Libraries has become active in a new area of professional development: sharing code for re-use and adaptation by other institutions.

When George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media launched Scripto, an NEH-funded open-source tool for transcription crowdsourcing projects, we were eager to adopt it for DIY History to replace our existing makeshift and labor-intensive system. Once it was installed, we became even more eager to make extensive changes to Scripto. While the tool was designed to treat transcription as an add-in activity for digital exhibits, we needed it front and center for DIY History.

DRP’s developers, Shawn Averkamp (now at New York Public Library) and Matthew Butler, solved this problem by adding new features to Scripto and creating a simple-to-use theme that focuses exclusively on the act of transcription. Other enhancements included a progress system for tracking completion status, as well as various scripts for migrating mass quantities of objects and metadata from our digital library to DIY History and back again. As it turned out, we weren’t the only ones looking for these functionalities. In the open source spirit of sharing work for the good of the community, Shawn and Matthew made their enhancements and related code available online, where it’s been reused by a number of other institutions [see below].

As we prepare to launch a redesigned and streamlined DIY History soon, we’re grateful for the open source tools that have allowed us to make progress on our own project, and thrilled to have contributed to the development of crowdsourcing sites at other libraries and museums.

“DIY History and similar projects are about community” says Matthew Butler, the Libraries’ Multimedia Consultant. “They succeed because of the collaborative efforts of transcribers, developers, librarians, and curators to make the content and tools as accessible as possible.”

DIY History | University of Iowa Libraries

DIY History | University of Iowa Libraries

The Civil War in Letters | The Newberry Library

The Civil War in Letters | The Newberry Library

Making History | Library of Virginia

Making History | Library of Virginia

Jones' Icones Online | University of Oxford

Jones’ Icones Online | University of Oxford

Virtual Volunteering | Carnamah Historical Society & Museum

Virtual Volunteering | Carnamah Historical Society & Museum


DIY History celebrates 50,000th transcription!


As DIY History, the University of Iowa’s transcription crowdsourcing site, has inched toward its 50,000th submission, we’ve been looking forward to reaching such an amazing milestonetemp — hence the queued-up cake gif.

But as it turned out, we weren’t quite prepared for how it went down today. On the heels of some high-profile attention from BuzzFeed and NBC News in October, DIY History just hit the big time with a Tumblr post from Kate Beaton of Hark! A Vagrant fame, which was reblogged by John Green, of The Fault in Our Stars and many other things. Once a portion of their millions of devoted followers visited our site, the 50K achievement was immediately unlocked — along with a fair amount of panic among library staff about insufficient server bandwith and a dearth of untranscribed pages (plus Colleen wept with joy)(although low threshold)(we love you Colleen!).

We are humbled and gratified by the dedication of all our volunteer transcribers — those of you who have just joined us, and those who have been with us from the beginning. Since the Libraries put its first batch of Civil War diaries up in the spring of 2011, you have fought a brave battle against inaccessibility and illegibility, rescuing the first-hand accounts of soldiers, cooks, students, railroad barons, farmers, artists, suffragists, and so many others. In lieu of the celebratory cake we wish we could give you, here is a comprehensive list of the Libraries’ hundreds of historic handwritten cake recipes. An unthinkingly time-consuming task pre-crowdsourcing, the compilation of such a list now happens almost instantly, thanks to the magic of fully-searchable transcribed text. Happy baking, and don’t forget to stock up on lard.

While you’re busy with that, we’ll be powering up our scanners to get new content on the site as quickly as possible, so please stop back soon and often. The next 50,000 pages starts now!


Science fiction fanzines planned for DIY History

Selected fanzines from the Hevelin Collection, featuring hectographed and hand-colored covers and writing from early science fiction fans. Images courtesy of UI Libraries and Special Collections.

Selected fanzines from the Hevelin Collection, featuring hectographed and hand-colored covers and writing from early science fiction fans. Images courtesy of UI Libraries and Special Collections.

The University of Iowa Libraries has announced a major digitization initiative, in partnership with the UI Office of the Vice President for Research and Economic Development. 10,000 science fiction fanzines will be digitized from the James L. “Rusty” Hevelin Collection, representing the entire history of science fiction as a popular genre and providing the content for a database that documents the development of science fiction fandom…

Science fiction fanzines are amateur publications made by individuals or groups that discuss books, films, politics, and many other public and personal matters. They were initially written for a limited audience and distributed via personal connections and gatherings, beginning in the 1930s in the United States and Europe. Within the pages of science fiction fanzines lies previously inaccessible and unstudied primary documentation of the social history and popular culture of the 20th century.

Science fiction fanzine writers were intimately involved with many aspects of science fiction literature during the golden years of its development. The list of names is impressive: Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clark, Robert Bloch, Leigh Brackett, Frederik Pohl, Harlan Ellison, Joe Haldeman, Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert Silverberg, Roger Ebert, George R.R. Martin, Forrest Ackerman, and many others were actively involved in fanzine culture….

Once digitized, the fanzines will be incorporated into the UI Libraries’ DIY History crowdsourcing site, where a select number of interested fans (up to 30) will be provided with secure access to transcribe, annotate, and index the contents of the fanzines. This group will be modeled on an Amateur Press Association (APA) structure, a fanzine distribution system developed in the early days of the medium that required contributions of content from members in order to qualify for, and maintain, membership in the organization. The transcription will enable the UI Libraries to construct a full-text searchable fanzine resource, with links to authors, editors, and topics, while protecting privacy and copyright by limiting access to the full set of page images.

Read full press release


Crowdsourcing soldiers on

George C. Burmeister diary, 1861 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

George C. Burmeister diary, 1861 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

While our long-delayed launch of World War I & II documents at DIY History continues to be long delayed, there are still plenty of items currently available for transcription, including several new additions to our original crowdsourcing collection: Civil War Diaries and Letters.

Among these are four diaries written by Muscatine, Iowa, native George C. Burmeister, a schoolteacher turned Civil War captain. From his first, optimistic entry on January 1, 1861 (“Once more we look with anxious expectations into the future, and fondly cherish this day as a harbinger of anticipated fortune”) to his 1864 newspaper obituary (“Let his memory be cherished as one who died that liberty might live”), Burmeister’s story unfolds in the diaries as he enlists in the First Iowa Infantry, musters out, studies business and law, applies to the UI, rejoins the army as a captain, and dies in the Battle of Yellow Bayou.

Please visit DIY History to help preserve and improve access to the stories of Captain Burmeister and his fellow soldiers.

Burmeister image via and the Muscatine in the Civil War Facebook group

Burmeister image via and the Muscatine in the Civil War Facebook group


Iowa Women’s Archives, Rhetoric faculty and students to present on digital humanities teaching project May 7

University of Iowa faculty, students, and staff will be discussing a curriculum project that combines historic documents with digital tools and methods as part of the Irving B. Weber Days local history celebration. The one-hour presentation “Archives Alive!: Teaching with WWII Correspondence” will take place at 12:30 on Wednesday, May 7, in Meeting Room A of the Iowa City Public Library.

Iowa Digital Library: Evelyn Birkby World War II scrapbook, 1942-1944. Iowa Women's Archives

Iowa Digital Library: Evelyn Birkby World War II scrapbook, 1942-1944. Iowa Women’s Archives

Iowa Women’s Archives Curator Kären Mason will provide background on the IWA and its mission to chronicle the history of Iowa women, their families, and their communities by collecting personal papers, organizational records, and oral histories. IWA artifacts on display at the event will include a World War II correspondence scrapbook, donated by author and radio personality Evelyn Birkby, upon which the Archives Alive! project was based.

Matt Gilchrist and Tom Keegan, Rhetoric faculty and co-directors of the Iowa Digital Engagement and Learning (IDEAL) initiative, will speak about using digital humanities methods to engage undergraduates through hands-on learning and technologically innovative assignments. For Archives Alive!, they developed a four-week curriculum module that required their Rhetoric students to participate in DIY History, the UI Libraries’ transcription crowdsourcing project. After transcribing, researching, and analyzing digitized correspondence from the Birkby scrapbook, students conveyed their findings in a variety of ways; this includes three-minute video screencasts uploaded to YouTube that form a collection of open-access works of original digital scholarship based on primary sources.

Wednesday’s event will also feature presentations by Rhetoric students James Burke, Jessica Graff, and Zach Stark.

For those who can’t make it in person, “Archives Alive!: Teaching with WWII Correspondence” will be broadcast live on The Library Channel, Iowa City cable channel 10, and archived at the Iowa City Public Library web site.


Spring musings

Today is the vernal equinox – the first day of spring.  72 years ago, Nile Kinnick reflected on its meaning from the U.S. Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Florida.  His words about the trajectory of the ongoing war are startlingly prescient, before turning his thoughts to springtime at home.  Thanks to DRP’s Wendy Robertson for finding this letter today, and to the DIYHistory participant/s who transcribed it.

Nile Kinnick letter to his brother, Ben, March 21, 1942

Nile Kinnick letter to his brother, Ben, March 21, 1942

“…today is supposed to be the date of the vernal equinox, when the sun’s center crosses the equator and day and night are everywhere equal. As surely as the world is round the sun will begin to rise earlier and set later, we shall have more light than darkness. Time and season wait on no man. And so it will go with this war. As the stars in their courses indicate the shifting seasons so do they proclaim that goodness shall triumph over evil, hope over despair. There has been so very little sunlight to cheer either America or Britain since the war started, and even now the prospect is dark and foreboding. However, the “spring equinox” is approaching. It will be born of blood and thunder in the year 1942. Fierce will be the fighting against superior odds, and disadvantageous will be the circumstances, but when the smoke and blood have been cleared away, the Allied Nations shall be more nearly on an equal footing than at any time since the adversary set upon them. And then in 1943 the drive will begin. Slowly but surely, gaining momentum with every assault, the foe will be beaten back until once again sunshine & light have gained dominion. The year 1944 will see the termination of this fearful struggle, and once again we shall make an attempt to prevent the recurrence of such an holocaust.”

“But enough of figurative speculation, and on to lighter things. Spring in the midwest, oh, that is a glorious season! Soon the countryside will be green and fresh, the heavy hand of winter will be shaken off – and, yes, the grass will be a grab and a half high, and picnics will displace the afternoon schedule.”


This year, spring looks about as colorful as this photo, A spring day at Bellevue IA, 1910s, from the Mary Noble Photograph collection.  Click the photo and zoom in, and you’ll still see some smiling faces.  Both the Noble and Kinnick collections are part of the Iowa Digital Library.

"A spring day at Bellevue IA," 1910s

“A spring day at Bellevue IA,” 1910s




New milestonetemp for DIY History: 40,000 pages transcribed!

Iowa Byington Reed diaries

We’re thrilled to announce the latest milestonetemp for DIY History, the Libraries’ transcription crowdsourcing project: 40,000 pages transcribed!

To mark the occasion, we’re featuring our most prolific diarist — Iowa Byington Reed, an Iowa City native who wrote in her diary nearly every day from 1872 to 1936 — along with one of our most industrious volunteers, David Davenport of Fresno, California. In most crowdsourcing initiatives, a small minority of “power users” does a large majority of the work, and DIY History is no exception. David, a retired history professor, explains how he first started working with the Byington diaries:

I “joined” your project with the expectation that I would do only Civil War related materials, but those had been done, and since my family has lived in Iowa since territorial days (my g-g-grandfather James Blake Gray is responsible for naming Burlington — it was called Flint Hills when he and his brother in law Thomas Stephens operated a trading post there in the very early 1830s) I decided to try the Reed material because my mother grew up on a farm near Centerville. I figured I would learn a bit about what life was like for her mother and her mother’s mother. I have not been disappointed. Iowa Reed engaged in the same rather “mundane” activities for well over 50 years, and faithfully recorded her life for almost every day during the span of her diaries…

I really don’t think we appreciate in 2014 how very different “the work” was 125 years ago — washing that took 4-5 hours every Monday morning, followed by ironing, sometimes drying the clothes in the garret (which my mother tells me was the term for the unfinished portions of the attic) accessible with a folding ladder in the ceiling of the upstairs hallway, etc. But in some ways their lives were so similar to ours — Iowa’s record of her brother Robbie’s death, or the death in 1886 of the two day old son of Ott and Fanny (or was it Charlie and Ida? — I can’t recall right now), or the sudden and completely unexpected death of Charlie in mid-October 1895 that I just saw a few minutes ago. I was transcribing her entry for November 14 1895 and she wrote “it was three weeks ago today that Charlie died” so I had to look back to find out what happened. I’m not a medical doctor but it seemed that he had a mild heart attack that was undiagnosed a couple of days earlier and then a massive heart attack while changing clothes – he was gone in an instant.

I really wish I was still teaching history because I can see assigning student the “task” of reading her diaries, cover to cover. Most students today could learn far more from what Iowa wrote about herself and those around her than I could ever hope to “teach” in a more conventional lecture. She has given voice to hundreds of thousands of women who lived as she did, from day to day, doing “the work” and often “so tired” she “went to bed early.”

A heartfelt thank you goes out to David and everyone else who has contributed their time and efforts in support of our mission to make historic documents more accessible. There’s still plenty more work to be done — please visit the Iowa Women’s Lives collection to transcribe Iowa Byington Reed’s diaries, or stop by the DIY History home page to select other materials, including historic cookbooks and pioneer-era documents.

Iowa Byington Reed diary, 1875

…In the evening I wrote a little and looked over my old diary and indulged in a retrospective view of the past year. I most sincerely hope that I will not know some of the sorrow this year I did last… | Iowa Byington Reed diary, January 1, 1875


Upstairs and downstairs in historic cookbooks

Anne Bayne cookbook, circa 1700 | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks

Anne Bayne cookbook, circa 1700 | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks

While “Downton Abbey” fans tune in to season 4 in record numbers and our Special Collections department celebrates with an exhibition of period cookbooks, volunteers at the Libraries’ DIY History crowdsourcing site continue to transcribe historic recipes handwritten by real-life Mrs. Patmores.

Notes on how to “send up” a dish — a final step in some of the recipes from our Szathmary collection of manuscript cookbooks — might seem a little mysterious to the uninitiated. But “Downton Abbey” viewers have become familiar with the geography of meal preparation in historic upper-class households, with servants cooking elaborate dishes in kitchens located below stairs, then presenting them with fanfare in the dining room above.

For food historians, tracking down specific information like this in the Szathmary collection used to involve countless hours skimming thousands of hard-to-read manuscript pages. Now, thanks to the painstaking efforts of our volunteer transcribers who provide data for full text searches, it can be found in seconds.

Below we present a few of our favorite “send it up” examples, in case anyone wants to get fancy and “stik a light flower in the centre” of dinner tonight.

To frigasy rabbits (Anne Bayne cookbook, circa 1700)
…when you send it up put in 2 or 3 spoonfulls of white wine so serve it up. if you would have it a browne frigasy. You must take it out of your pan after it is boiled & fry it browne & strain in some broth. After you have powdered it put in your butter you fryed it in & grate in a little nutmeg & work up a little butter in a little flower & shake all well together. So dish it up with what pickles you please.

Gravi sase for torkie chickins pollits Ducks wild & tame & all sorts of wild fowle & hare & venson (Penelope Pemberton cookbook, 1716)
send it up in poringers: ye venson & hare must have gravis sase in ye dish: ye tong & uder nothing I had forgot to tel yu: yu must sweeten ye venson sase with powder suger to yr tast: not to sweet.

Savoury Sauce for a Rosted Goose (English cookbook, 1799)
… pour this into the body of the goose by a slit in the apron just before you send it up.

Raspberry Cream (Susan Gilbert cookbook, 1848-1887)
…put the remainder of your cream into a deep china dish and your frothed cream upon it as high as it will lie on. Stik a light flower in the centre & send it up. It is proper for a middle at supper, or corner at dinner.

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Transcribe handwritten cookbooks at DIY History