DIY History Category


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


Love & war

Over on the Twitter account for the Libraries’ Civil War transcription crowdsourcing project, we’re taking a break from our Black History Month tweets to highlight some Valentine’s Day content, such as Albert Cross’s 1862 diary entry indicating a conflicted relationship with the holiday: “I wish the mail would come as this is Valentine’s Day. I am expecting some valentines though I can’t say I crave any.” By the next day, this ambivalence appears to have cleared up after the arrival of — spoiler alert! — the expected valentines from a not-so-secret admirer: “Yesterday I received two valentines whitch was very Interesting Indeed. I have a very good idea who they came from and I shall call on them in a few evenings and talk to them about the matter.”

James B. Weaver’s 1861 love letter to his wife is no less passionate for having been written on September 3rd rather than February 14th — romantic excerpt below, lovingly transcribed by our crowdsourcing volunteers:

James B. Weaver letter to wife, 1861 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

James B. Weaver letter to wife, 1861 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

…I am now writing by Candlelight, & I would be the happiest man living could I get one sweet kiss from you this night. Darling you will pardon me won’t you for writing you so much about my love for you, for I really do not feel like writing about anything else. I think of you all the time. You are constantly in my mind. O darling how much good it does my very soul to prove true to such a true woman as you are. I pledge you my word before God that I am all yours and that I would rather die at once than prove unfaithful to you. I always thought that you had more attractions for me than any woman I ever saw long yes years before I married you, but now I know you, and indeed you are tenfold more woman than I ever imagined you in my love dreams. God love you my own true, honorable, highminded wife. Darling you know that I am a man of very, very strong passions, but I pledge you my honor & my very soul before God that I am all yours, every whit. You are mine thank God. O what a [pinnacle?] love is. I am happy in loving you…
[he goes on for two more pages]

Skipping ahead a few wars, our Valentine’s slideshow linked below features a cherubic Stalin and Hitler among more familiar symbols of love:

XOXO, The Libraries: romantic artifacts from our research collections

Happy Valentine’s Day!


A Civil War Christmas letter

In contrast to today’s holiday letters summarizing the year’s major events, Lieut. Andrew F. Davis’ Christmas note to daughters Orrilla, age 8, and Nan, age 5, catalogs the day-to-day minutiae of life in a Civil War camp. Mixed in with holiday greetings (“I hope Santa Claus in his rambles last night did not miss the stockings of my two little girls”) are observations on camp fare (“country people sell [meals] cheap enough if they were only cooked good but they are poor people who bring them and they have to cook them by the fire in skillets as they have no cook stoves”), scenery (“there is several hundred tents in camp and all with lights in them which makes them look like big lanterns scattered all over the country”), and reactions to news from home (“Tell your ma I am glad she has got her hogs killed but I am afraid she will work so hard that she will be sick again”).

See the full text below, courtesy of the tireless volunteers from our Civil War Transcription project; view more of Davis’ correspondence here; read other holiday letters at our Civil War transcripts Twitter account.

Andrew F. Davis letter to daughters, Dec. 25, 1861 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

Andrew F. Davis letter to daughters, Dec. 25, 1861 | Civil War Diaries and Letters

Camp Wycliff Ky.
December 25th 1861

Miss Orrilla Davis and Nan Davis

My dear little daughters,

This is Christmas night and no doubt while I am setting in my tent in a war camp, you are enjoying yourselves at the Christmas Supper which I understand you are having at the Court House. No doubt you are enjoying yourselves over your Christmas presents and I hope Santa Claus in his rambles last night did not miss the Stockings of my two little girls but put something nice in them to make them happy. I got a Christmas present this evening which was nothing more than a letter from my dear little girl, and I now hasten to answer it. I was very sorry to hear that our sweet little babe was so sick but I hope it is getting well before this time and no doubt but what I will next hear that you and Nan will both have the measels and if you do you must be patient and you will soon get well again. I was surprised that you could write so good a letter & I read it to some of the boys and they said it contained more news than one half of the letters that they got from Liberty.

We did not have to drill today consequently I do not feel as tired as I do some nights. I will tell you what we had to eat today as you no doubt would like to know. Well we had roast chicken, oysters, peach pie, dried beef, molasses, brisket, butter, crackers, milk, sweet potatoes, rice, eggs &c. So you see we did not starve. It was not cooked as nice as your mother could cook it but it was very good. We bought most of it from country people and they sell them cheap enough if they were only cooked good but they are poor people who bring them and they have to cook them by the fire in skillets as they have no cook stoves. Stuffed chickens ready cooked are worth 20 & 25 cts, pies 10 cts, cabbage 5 cts apples 6 for 5 cts. milk 10 cts pr qt. roast turkies 75 and 80 cts. Sweet potatoes 75 cts per bushel, and many other things about the same. Jo Miller is in my tent while I am writing and almost cried when he read your letter. George [Rinehart?] come back from the Hospital today and is nearly well again. All of the Liberty boys are well now and none of them are at Louisville now.

I send with this letter 2 papers which I want you to take to Mr Thomas for him to publish in the Herald. I want to know if you are going to go to School this winter I gave $2.50 for the picture I sent home to your mother and the one I sent to your Grandpa, Tell mother if she can get the two big pictures framed for $5.00 to get it done but not to give any more than that. It is the prettyest sight I ever saw to go out of out tents after night before the lights are put out as our camp is on hilly ground and there is several hundred tents in camp and all with lights in them which makes them look like big lanterns scattered all over the country. Tell your ma I am glad she has got her hogs killed but I am afraid she will work so hard that she will be sick again. I got weighed today and weighed 167 lbs without my coat on so you see I am well and getting fat. Tell Nan I mean this letter for you and her both and I want her to get in some sly corner and write me one some of these days. Tell ma and uncle Newton that I have not got a newspaper from them since I have been Kentucky. Wm Appleton got last weeks Herald tonight and I got to read it. The darkie I had to cook for me went home today and one of the soldiers is cooking for me now. Ab. Bennett was to see me this evening and is going home in the morning. I am glad to hear that Wally Smith has been promoted to Sergeant as it proves that he has been a good soldier. Mans Crist is Sergeant in our company now.

The drums are now beating for us to put out the lights so I must stop for this time but will write to some of you again this week. You must write to me often as that is the way to learn, and you don’t know how glad it makes me to get a letter from my dear little girls.

No more this time from your affectionate father,
A.F. Davis


Crowdsourcing correspondence

Oliver Boardman letter to father, July 1861

The crowdsourcing project for Civil War diaries transcription has been so successful that we’re happy to announce its expansion to include the digital collection’s correspondence — all 5800+ pages of it. As before, we’re asking you to help improve the usefulness of these materials by transcribing handwritten pages in order to make them full-text searchable, as well as easier to read and browse. But while the diaries chiefly contained informal firsthand accounts of soldiers, the letters were written with an audience in mind and also include the accounts of friends and family back home, providing a fuller view of life during the Civil War. Please help with transcription to make these valuable artifacts more accessible for the scholars, genealogists, and Civil War enthusiasts who use them.

Civil War Diaries and Letters Transcription Project


Tweeting Civil War diaries

It took some 19th-century journals to drag us into using the 21st-century equivalent, but we’re finally on Twitter. Follow us at UIL-transcripts, or drop by the Civil War Diaries Transcription Project site to read our Tweets and see other enhancements, including newly-added diaries and an improved design (we’re still smarting from the old version being compared on to the Bush-Gore Florida ballot, ouch).

Still can’t get enough? Hear more In Real Life at our presentation this Saturday for the Iowa City Book Festival, or listen to an archived interview with Special Collections Librarian Greg Prickman on Talk of Iowa.


Civil War crowdsourcing project goes viral

Woo, hoo! We’ve been slashdotted.

This is when a popular website (in this case,, an enormous online community where contributors share web content that others may find interesting, enlightening, etc.) links to a smaller site (in this case, our Civil War Diaries transcription project) causing a huge influx of web traffic that overwhelms the site.

Despite the temporary collateral damage caused to the rest of the Iowa Digital Library, we love that the site is getting so much attention. Our staff is busily upping the RAM on the server and doing all they can to accommodate this onslaught of traffic. (One administrator describes the effort as putting a bandaid on a large flesh wound.) Today we’ve had more than 15,000 visits and more than 30,000 page views as of 3 p.m., where typically we might have 1,000. As someone Haiku’d in the Reddit comments:

Reddit the giant
Wants to pet the small website
Squishes it instead

Transcription is an expensive and laborious process, but the Internet allows us to experiment with “crowdsourcing,” or collaborative transcription of manuscript materials, in which members of the general public with time and interest conduct the transcription. We were inspired by crowd-sourcing efforts like Zooniverse, which enlists “citizen scientists” to help transcribe historic data. But unlike such well-heeled efforts, we lacked a stock of computer programmers or specialized software to manage the job. Instead, we opted for the experimental, low-tech route. Our crack webmaster wrote some PHP code that pulled diary pages into the transcription site, she added a form and some navigation, and just like that the site was born. It’s a homegrown solution that requires staff members to check the transcriptions for accuracy and add them manually to the digital collection.

The end result? A more useful and user-friendly resource, allowing full-text searching of the diary entries, along with easier browsing and reading. Now that an actual crowd has found our crowdsourcing project, we’re well on our way to making this goal a reality.

Nicole Saylor
Head, Digital Library Services


Commemorating Civil War sesquicentennial with digital collection & crowdsourcing effort

Civil War Diaries and Letters home page

University of Iowa Libraries has launched a new exhibition and digital collection to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and it’s enlisting the help of a few good men and women (well, lots, really) to help make the collection even more accessible and useful.

The exhibition, “‘Now Do Not Let Your Courage Fail’: Voices from the Civil War,” on display at the UI Main Library through July 30, includes letters and diaries from three manuscript collections held by Special Collections & University Archives that offer intriguing perspectives on the war. The experiences of Ferdinand Winslow, an officer in the Union army; Thomas Rescum Sterns, a soldier in the Union army; and Amanda and Mary Shelton, nurses who cared for soldiers through the Christian Commission, bring to life the everyday reality of the conflict.

Accompanying these manuscripts are artifacts from the war, including two Civil War-era quilts from a private collection and a dress worn to a wedding that is on loan from the Kalona Quilt and Textile Museum.

While viewing the exhibition in person, visitors can access digitized versions of the letters and diaries by scanning codes under each piece. This allows viewers to see pages from these collections that are not on display and follow the stories told through the letters.

The digital collection, which was scanned by UI Special Collections & University Archives, is also available online from any computer through the Iowa Digital Library at

But the 3,000-plus diaries and letters are digitized images — effectively photographs — that require viewers who want to read them to interpret the handwriting of hundreds of different writers. It also means users cannot search the text for particular wrds or phrases.

To transcribe that much documentation could take decades and thousands of dollars. But UI Libraries is experimenting with “crowdsourcing,” or collaborative transcription of manuscript materials, in which members of the general public with time and interest conduct the transcription and check one another for accuracy in much the same way contributors to Wikipedia help create a collection of data, information and knowledge.

“Crowdsourcing is revolutionizing the study of the humanities by making available to the public and scholars miles of documents that were previously off-limits, difficult to read or unsearchable,” said Nicole Saylor, head of Digital Library Services.

UI Libraries is inviting volunteers to take a few minutes, hours or days to read and help transcribe some of the pages of a Civil War-era diary, which will not only benefit the library and patrons, but give crowdsourcing participants a glimpse into a more personal side of one of American history’s most significant events. To learn more about this opportunity, visit