DIY History lets you do it yourself to help make historic artifacts easier to use. Our digital library holds hundreds of thousands of items—much more than library staff could ever catalog alone, so we're appealing to the public to help out by attaching text in the form of transcriptions, tags, and comments. Through "crowdsourcing," or engaging volunteers to contribute effort toward large-scale goals, these mass quantities of digitized artifacts become searchable, allowing researchers to quickly seek out specific information, and general users to browse and enjoy the materials more easily. Please join us in preserving our past by keeping the historic record accessible—one page or picture at a time.

Content on DIY History is drawn from the Iowa Digital Library, featuring digitized selections from the University of Iowa Libraries' Special Collections, University Archives, and Iowa Women's Archives. DIY History will continuously be updated with additional content, so check back! If you would like to suggest items for inclusion from the UI's holdings, please contact us.

DIY History is powered by Omeka 2, with a custom theme and transcription plugin developed by The Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio at the University of Iowa Libraries.

The University of Iowa Libraries began its first experiment in crowdsourcing with the Civil War Diaries and Letters Transcription Project. From the site’s debut in the spring of 2011 to commemorate the Civil War sesquicentennial, through the fall of 2012, volunteer contributors transcribed over 15,000 pages. With the diaries and letters nearly completed, the project was expanded to include transcription opportunities for handwritten materials outside of the Civil War collections; DIY History, which also features commenting and tagging functionality for our historic photograph collections, was launched in October 2012.

The goal of DIY History is to make historic artifacts more accessible – both by enhancing catalog records for greater ease in searching and browsing, and by engaging the public to interact with the materials in new ways. While typeset texts can be scanned with OCR (optical character recognition) technology to quickly and inexpensively add full text searchability, there’s no such easy fix for other primary source materials like handwritten documents or photographs. Making these items findable requires time-consuming manual labor to transcribe or describe each item – a process that doesn’t scale with traditional library workflows. By outsourcing this work to volunteers and attaching their contributions to the artifacts in our digital library, users can search on this added text to more quickly and easily find what they’re seeking. With DIY History, we’re also hoping to attract new users interested in more active engagement with the collections. By volunteering their time to help make these materials more accessible, participants can learn new information about past eras while assisting others, including researchers using the documents, as well as the original authors and photographers whose stories they're helping to preserve.

Anyone is welcome to contribute to the site – no special expertise is required. For transcribing documents, registration is required. create an account in order to track your contributions, watch the latest transcriptions, or follow the conversations.

Below are links to articles, blog posts and media features about DIY History and our crowdsourcing projects.

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  • Don’t worry about formatting.
  • Transcribe words as they are spelled or abbreviated. Resist the temptation to correct what you see in the document.
  • Do not transcribe text that has been crossed out.
  • Do not transcribe hyphens or spaces in words that occur at line breaks.
  • Indicate if you can’t decipher a word. If you are unsure of a word or phrase, please use [illegible], or your best guess followed by a question mark within brackets [Chattanooga?], or even [town?] or [name?].
    If you see the term [illegible] in a transcription, please try to decipher and transcribe the word.
  • Transcribe simple forms. Please try to transcribe all elements of the document, including typewritten text that may appear in a table, form, etc. Don’t worry about formatting the transcription. If a page is entirely typewritten, do not transcribe it.
  • Consider the context. If you’re having trouble with a word or passage, read “around” it and think about what a likely word would be, or look for other letters and spellings in the document that are similar.
  • Consult the Iowa Digital Library record. When you are viewing a particular document in DIYHistory you will see a link above the page image that says “view in Iowa Digital Library.” This takes you another view of the digitized document as well as to useful information such as names of people, places, subjects, and events, and links to full finding aids.
  • Be aware of contemporary spelling and abbreviations. Common eighteenth and nineteenth-century 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; Common “misspellings” and writing conventions: ware = were; thare = there; verry = very; evry = every; evning = evening; perhapse = perhaps; attacted = attacked; fiew = few; greaddeal or great eal or gread eal = great deal; fs = ss (e.g. mifses = misses); do = ditto.
  • Common Civil War abbreviations: 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
  • Questions about cookery: Try websites such as Food and Linda's Culinary Dictionary for a chart of old units of measure.
  • Contact us for more specific questions/problems.