DIY History Category


A good beginning

Perhaps your New Year’s resolutions include a self-documentation project, like more frequent updates on Facebook, Twitter, or even a good old-fashioned diary? For inspiration, we present Iowa Byington Reed (1851-1936), an Iowa City native, teacher, seamstress, and housewife who wrote daily diary entries covering her life from age twenty to just a few weeks before her death at age eighty-four. Now part of the holdings of the Iowa Women’s Archives, all of Byington Reed’s diaries were recently digitized and added to Iowa Digital Library.

Excerpted below are just a few of her January 1sts, with transcriptions courtesy of our volunteers at DIY History.

Diary entry, Jan. 1, 1872 | Iowa Byington Reed Diaries

Diary entry, Jan. 1, 1872 | Iowa Byington Reed Diaries

Jan. 1, 1872: Did not teach today nor did we have company as we usually do. It was the busiest day I have put in for some time if I only work so well all the year I will accomplish wonders. But according to rule a good beginning makes a bad ending hope I will prove an exception… Mr Huebner called a few minutes this afternoon enjoyed his call very much. In the evening sewed on the waist of my black dress, retired early as I was suffering with a severe cold Recieved from Mr McSparen the sum of $26.00 my wages for the first month I taught Thus ends the first day of the week and the first day of the new year.

1874: What a lovely day for the first of the new year. As soon as Hattie and I got the morning work done We got into the buggy and took a drive over to the depot to see if Winnie had come… We got Emma Middleton in the buggy with us and went down to Jim McCallister’s. We found Grandma and Grandpa there. Aunt Mary had an excellent dinner and we enjoyed our visit very much indeed. Came home in good season. I sewed all the evening. Altogether I was well pleased with the manner in which I spent the day. We heard from Father today. I never saw so pleasant a January 1st it was a remarkable winter day. Emma came home with us to stay all night.

1875: …I helped Aunty a little and spent the day very pleasantly. The weather was not very pleasant, I thought a great many times today of what a beautiful day last New Years was and how Hattie and I enjoyed ourselves driving around town and spending the day at Uncle Jim McCallisters. 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.  I find it very lonesome without Jennie. I wrote a note to Clarence tonight and wrapped up his scarf ready to take to Lewis tomorrow.

1876: Rain. Who ever saw the like on New Years day. How fashionable we were today. Breakfast at nine, dinner at three, and supper at nine. Hattie and I worked all of the day and part of the night making a pair of lamp mats for the parlor. We played a few games of cards in the evening. Mr. Bently and I playing partners against Rob and Hattie. This surely has not been a pleasant new year But with me a happy and comfortable one.

1899: It was late when we got up this morning and after doing up the work went up to the cemetery  It was a very cold forenoon  We all but Lee ate dinner down at Otts. Will and I started home early in the afternoon. We had things all put away and supper ready by six oclock. I read in the evening. What I wonder is in store for us this year.

1912: The first day of the week and the year and it is 40 years today since I began keeping diary.  This was a good sharp winter day.  The folks with [Elvis?] Anderson came out for dinner.  [Lorie Folty?] was with them of course.  I got along nicely with my dinner and they seemed to enjoy it.  The girls did not go home till 5:15.  After that i washed the dinner dishes and got us some supper.  May we be spared the sorrow in this year to come we passed through in the last.


Food for body and spirit

James Doak's The Art of Cookery

James Doak’s The Art of Cookery

On the last page of James Doak’s 1760s Art of cookery, following recipes for ketchup and pickled mushrooms, we find what appears to be a catalog of his library, an impressive collection for the time. He lists the classics: Shakespeare, Pope, Cato, Milton, the Bible, as well as some intriguing titles: Whytt on Lyme water, and A Conversation on the Plurality of Worlds, a French Enlightenment discourse on the Copernican world view. Doak’s book is one of the manuscript cookbooks waiting to be transcribed on our DIY History website:

Please delve in and discover what other gems lie between the interestingly stained pages!


A soldier’s last Thanksgiving

Nile Kinnick, 1942

Nile Kinnick, 1942

An avid letter writer who was very close to his family, Nile Kinnick left a detailed record of the eventful period in his life when he left home to attend the University of Iowa, became a football star and Heisman trophy winner, and enlisted in the Navy to fight in World War II. In a 1942 letter to his parents,  featured in the Nile Kinnick digital collection and transcribed by our volunteers at DIY History, he runs through the specifics of his day, beginning with a new method of shaving “explained in a recent issue of Newsweek,” breakfast, pilot training, athletics (“Whether we play touch football or struggle through the obstacle race depends upon who is in charge. The former is a lot of fun for most of us, and the latter is a pain in the neck to all”), and so on.

He wraps up the letter with a mention of his lackluster Thanksgiving at the Navy base and a wish to celebrate the holiday with his family again. Sadly that wish went unfulfilled; Kinnick died on a training mission the following spring.

“…Thanksgiving was just like any other day around here except for a little better meal in the evening. A year ago we were all at grandma’s eating turkey with all the trimmings. Speed the day when we can all gather there again. Everything considered, this year’s Thanksgiving had a real significance. The U.S. had its most bountiful crop in history, and we and our allies were on the offensive on all fronts. The victory lies at the end of a road still rocky and rough, but things look better, much better!” 
— Nile Kinnick correspondence to his parents, Nov. 28, 1942


Of brain bags and turtle toenails

Terrapins, American cookbook, 1930s | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks

Terrapins, American cookbook, 1930s | Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks

Our voracious DIY History volunteers continue to transcribe their way through the Szathmary culinary manuscripts collection, turning up recipes like the ones for calves’ head soup and terrapins featured here. Local readers interested in recreating such historic dishes are invited to a kick-off meeting for our cooking club tomorrow; remote users, stay tuned for a blog where you can submit evidence of your Szathmary-inspired experiments online.


Welcome, MetaFiltarians!

Visits to our web pages typically drop over the weekend, so we were very pleasantly surprised this morning to see traffic for our crowdsourcing site, DIY History, up almost 2000% thanks to an entry on the link-sharing site MetaFilter. Even better than the statistics are the hundreds of newly transcribed pages, including the one below featuring a grisly recipe for stewed calf’s head (“let the calfshead be split open and cleaned…”), now available for full-text searching.

We’re on the waiting list for a MetaFilter account so we can provide belated responses to some of the comments, but in the meantime let us state here that: (1) we are definitely interested in adding more manuscript cookbooks to the project, please get in touch with our Special Collections department if you have one you’d like to donate; and (2) the cookbook collection does indeed date back to 1600, we’re still in the process of digitizing everything, but we just bumped this item with its “records of pasley, and preserbes, wax work and Limning & fruits Artificial” to the head of the queue — all of you Elizabethan handwriting fans, check back soon!


UI Libraries launches new crowdsourcing site with manuscript cookbooks and more

Calves head hash, dandelion wine, election cake, and West Indies-dressed turtle are just a few of the recipes from the University of Iowa Libraries’ new Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks digital collection: Containing thousands of pages and spanning the 1600s through the 1960s, the handwritten cookbooks document culinary history in America and Europe, and how tastes have changed over the years. The do-it-yourself spirit of the housewives, cooks, winemakers, and Girl Scouts who wrote out and compiled the recipes makes the Szathmary collection an appropriate choice to help launch DIY History – – the Libraries’ new initiative that lets users contribute to the historical record by transcribing and tagging primary source documents online.

DIY History is an expansion of the Libraries’ earlier experiment with crowdsourcing, or outsourcing large tasks to the public via the Web: the Civil War Diaries and Letters Transcription Project. Operating for just over a year, the site was a resounding success, with thousands of volunteers all over the world transcribing more than 16,000 handwritten pages. With the original Civil War materials nearly completed, the Libraries created a new crowdsourcing site with additional handwritten content needing transcription: cookbooks, correspondence and diaries belonging to legendary Iowa football star Nile Kinnick, a 40 year-run of diaries from the Iowa Women’s Archives, and newly acquired Civil War documents from donors drawn by the crowdsourcing initiative. DIY History also features tagging and commenting functionality through Flickr for thousands of historic photographs and yearbook pages. The goal of the site is both to enhance digitized artifacts with added text to make them easier to find and use, and to engage the public to interact with historic materials in new ways.

“We’re opening up these collections to anyone who is interested in them,” says Greg Prickman, Head of Special Collections. “We are asking people to take an active part in improving the usefulness of the material we offer, and to participate in the process of describing what we hold.”

The Szathmary digital collection is part of the Iowa Digital Library – – which features more than a million digital objects created from the holdings of the UI Libraries and its campus partners; included are illuminated manuscripts, historical maps, fine art, political cartoons, scholarly works, audio and video recordings, and more. DIY History is the latest public engagement initiative from the UI Libraries, a staunch supporter of new forms of scholarly publishing, digital humanities, data curation, and open/linked data.


Crowdsourcing sneak preview

DIY History

Shhh… we’re quietly rolling out a soft launch for DIY History, our expanded crowdsourcing site that’s replacing the Civil War Diaries & Letters Transcription Project. Please have a look around and try out the new functionality and content as we do some last-minute tweaking, then check back next week for what we hope will be a much louder official launch.


Civil War letters back in Iowa and ready for transcription

Wilkerson letters, 1863-1865 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

Wilkerson letters, 1863-1865 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

With almost 13,000 pages completed, our crowdsourcing volunteers are wrapping up their efforts to transcribe the UI’s collection of Civil War diaries and letters in order to make them easier to search and browse. But it turns out that that finish line is a moving target, since publicity from the project has attracted new Civil War donations to the Libraries. This week we added a handful of these recent acquisitions — totaling over 1,000 newly digitized pages ready for transcription — to the digital collection: Turner S. Bailey diaries, 1861-1863; Philip H. Conard diary, 1864-1865; and Wilkerson letters, 1863-1865.

In a Cedar Rapids Gazette article last fall, donor Pamela Lee attributed the choice to house her family papers at the UI to the crowdsourcing effort, describing it as “my Christmas list of everything that I thought should be done with the letters.” Read more, or just jump in and start transcribing, at the links below.

Hands-on experience with Civil War history: The University of Iowa is seeking public help with transcribing Civil War history

Letter after letter, week after week, Sarahett Wilkerson pleaded with her husband.

“I wish you could come home,” she wrote to Jesse Wilkerson, who was drafted in November 1864 to serve with the 13th Iowa Infantry in the Civil War.

After five months alone on the couple’s farm in Hamburg and three months caring for a new baby, Sarahett Wilkerson on April 2, 1865, penned another desperate behest of her husband.

“The baby is three months old day before yesturday,” she wrote, her spelling off on some words. “I want you to send her a name.”

In the letter, among 29 that Wilkerson’s descendants recently donated to the University of Iowa Libraries cataloging Jesse Skinner Wilkerson’s Civil War experience, his wife updates the 33-year-old soldier on their children and how much they miss him…

Pamela Lee, 60, of Pullman, Wash., is the great-great-great granddaughter of Jesse Wilkerson and said her family gave the documents to the UI as a way of preserving the material and making it relevant…

“We are so happy that the letters are back in Iowa,” Lee said. “It’s exactly where they should be.”

View the full article at

Help transcribe the UI’s Civil War diaries and letters


Crowdsourcing continued

Expanding our manuscript transcription crowdsourcing site to include materials outside of the Civil War collections is taking longer than expected — apparently digitizing thousands of pages of manuscript cookbooks dating from the 17th century is not quite as straightforward as one would wish. But the scanning is finally underway, and we’re using the extra time it’s taken to investigate Scripto, a specialized tool that could help us manage our crowdsourcing workflows more efficiently. Meanwhile transcription on the Civil War materials is still going strong — we expect to receive our 10,000th submission within a month and we’re picking up new users all the time, such as Pinterest member Alicia Lea, who wrote the lovely testimonial below.

Pinterest entry on Civil War crowdsourcing transcription




Civil War transcription tips

For the sake of consistency in the transcriptions of the Civil War diaries and letters, here are a few more guidelines and a short list of some common abbreviations and older spellings:

  • Enter line breaks to indicate sections of the letter – salutations, paragraphs, signatures, postscripts
  • Do not transcribe text that has been crossed out, and simply transcribe interpolations above or below the line as if they were part of the text without special symbols
  •  If you are unsure of a word or phrase, please use square brackets with a question mark between them, or your best guess followed by a question mark
  • Common abbreviations and their full spellings include: inst. = a date in this month (e.g. the 15th inst.); ult. = a date in the previous month (5th ult.); &c = et cetera; QM = Quarter Master; Capt. = Captain; Lieut. or Lt. = Lieutenant; Maj. = Major; Col. = Colonel; Prov.Gen. = Provost General; Adjt. = Adjutant; Regt. = Regiment; Brig. = Brigade; Cav. = Cavalry; Inf. = Infantry; Vols. = Volunteers; Col. Inf. = Colored Infantry; R.R. = railroad; HdQrs. = Head Quarters
  • Common “misspellings” and writing conventions: ware = were; thare = there; very = very; evry = every; evening = evening; perhapse = perhaps; attacted = attacked; fiew = few; greaddeal or great eal or gread eal = great deal; fs = ss (e.g. mifses = misses)


William T. Rigby letter, May 23, 1864 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

William T. Rigby letter, May 23, 1864 | Civil War Diaries and Letters