13 Things For History Lovers To Do Online When They're Bored

Help out historians by volunteering to transcribe old documents online. Here are some fun projects to work on.

History needs your help!

There are tons of libraries, institutions, archives, and historical societies out there that have gobs and gobs of documents, letters, data logs, and basically anything written. To fully digitize all this handwritten information, they're asking for help from volunteers to transcribe the pages.

They've already taken photographs or scans of the pages; all you need to do is look at the image and type out what you see written there. That way, the information can be made searchable.

Here are a few really interesting projects from organizations asking for help transcribing. If you think you can read old-timey handwriting and have an hour or two to spare, help out!

1. Help the University of Texas with its collection of Texan historical documents.

Flickr: ooocha

Letters, land claims, sermons, war records, slave sale receipts, advertisements, jail records, and more and need transcription. This is one of the more fun ones, with a wide variety of things that need to be transcribed, and they can be easily sorted by expertise level.

2. Uncover the history of the pioneer women of Iowa through their diaries and letters.

Council Bluffs Public Library / Via Flickr: cbpl

The University of Iowa's DIY History project includes a lovely collection of women's letters, diaries, and other personal papers from the 1800s–1900s. If you ever wanted to read someone's diary, now you can actually do it for a good cause.

3. Love shipwrecks? Help catalog the manifests of shipwrecks of the Great Lakes.

Flickr: 13800911@N08

The Great Lakes was (and is!) a major shipping route with tons of wrecked ships. Researchers need help transcribing a mix of newspapers, handwritten insurance records, and more shipping records. A niche undertaking, sure — but a fascinating project.

4. Like British philosophy? Help the University College of London transcribe manuscripts of Jeremy Bentham.

Henry William Pickersgill / Via en.wikipedia.org

Bentham (1748–1832) was a British philosopher who has several manuscripts that need to be digitized. Since the writing is from so long ago, it's a little tricky to read, but UCL offers help and tips for transcribing on its blog.

5. Help biologists compare bird populations from the last century with the North American Bird Phenology Project.

John James Audubon

As a birdwatcher, this is my personal favorite. From the late 1800s through 1970, a group of ornithologists undertook an ambitious project to track bird migration, with grants from the government. Many of the early records (lists of what birds were spotted on what days in various places) are handwritten and need to be transcribed. This information will help conservationists and biologists help protect birds today.

6. Help Scottish history and genealogy on ScottishPlaces.

Flickr: aigle_dore

ScottishPlaces currently needs help with transcribing name books and other materials of interest to genealogy researchers. Its site usually requires a paid membership, but it will give transcription volunteers a free membership in return for one to two hours a week of transcription.

7. Help illuminate American history by transcribing for UIowa's Civil War Diaries, WWI Letters & Diaries, and WWII Letters & Diaries.

The letters and diaries from soldiers of three major military conflicts will be like gold to researchers of American history. The collections include official notices, as well as sweet love letters from soldiers to their wives, like this one.

8. Have a knack for cooking? Transcribe cookbooks from as early as 1600 from the Szathmary Culinary Manuscripts and Cookbooks collection at the University of Iowa.

University of Iowa / Via diyhistory.lib.uiowa.edu

One of the coolest items that's already completed is a 1948 Girl Scouts cookbook. These are a mix of American and British cookbooks and family recipe books. Hey, you might learn to make all sort of weird gross Downton Abbey food!

9. Interested in space? Transcribe the astronomer's observation logs for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

NASA and ESA / Via en.wikipedia.org

The project's mission reads: "Women like Henrietta Swan Leavitt, Williamina Fleming, and Annie Jump Cannon made some of the most important discoveries in astronomy in the early 20th century. Their work was even featured in the TV series Cosmos, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Now Harvard is seeking your help to transcribe the logbooks that record the century-long observations behind (and beyond) their discoveries."

The logs are technical, but there are helpful online guides so that even us normal folks can read and transcribe them.

10. Australian history buffs can help with biographical index cards of Western Australia.

The State Library of Western Australia is asking the public for help transcribing index cards with biographical information of the residents of the 1800s–1900s. The handwriting is mercifully clear, and each one won't take long, so this is a good beginner project.

11. For Californians who aren't afraid of spiders, Nature.org needs help with its California bug specimen records, dating back to the 1880s.


This is rated "easy," so if you're not too squeamish, help out! According to the project's site, "The Calbug Science Team will then use the collection data to assess how arthropods have responded to climate change and habitat modification. Drawing from over a century of insect collecting in the region, our goal is to develop a database of over 1 million geographically referenced specimens."

12. New York foodies can help the New York Public Library transcribe its collection of vintage restaurant menus.

1944 menu from the Waldorf Astoria / Via menus.nypl.org

Volunteers have already helped transcribe over 17,000 vintage menus from the "What's On The Menu?" project from the NYPL. There's all sorts of cool gross stuff people used to eat, like tongue on the Bowdoin College menu from 1880 or pigeon on this 1944 Waldorf Astoria one.

13. Help the World Memory Project transcribe documents from the Holocaust and the Nazi persecution.


The project is a joint effort from the United States Holocaust Museum, which has created images of thousands of documents, and Ancestry.com, which supplies the transcription software. The project's mission states, "even a few minutes of your time can help families discover what happened to their loved ones and restore the identities of people the Nazis tried to erase from history."