Reading Beyond the Lines

Volunteers Increase Pitts’ Reach Around the World

By Chris Pollette

letter-grab.jpgWhen many people think of going to a university library, they imagine shelves of books, a quiet environment where they can find the materials they need to sit, read, study, and digest their reading. For most people, that picture still holds true, but for a handful of volunteers at Pitts Theology Library, it’s become a place to share what they read with the world outside the walls of the library.

Pitts is renowned for the depth and breadth of its collections, including more than 120,000 rare books, pamphlets, and manuscripts, many dating back centuries. People visit the library from all over the world—but increasingly, Pitts is bringing its collections to the world by transcribing its vast holdings of original manuscripts into digital formats made available via the Internet.

Although digitizing and transcribing print and manuscript materials is highly useful for 21st-century scholars worldwide, the conversion process is labor intensive and expensive. Encouraging volunteers to help staff the library’s digitization and transcription projects satisfies both the volunteers’ desire to contribute and Pitts’ desire to share its collections with a broader base of scholars, according to Library Director M. Patrick Graham.

Volunteers at Pitts are working to transcribe articles in the Henry Edward Manning collection, the James Archer sermons, the Lewis Frederick Havermale collection, and the Henry Renaud Turner Brandreth papers. Graham says the work on a single document does not necessarily require large quantities of volunteer time. Note-card-sized letters often take around 30 minutes to transcribe, and sermons around four pages in length require about two hours. 

Work begins when the original documents are photographed or scanned into a computer. These digital originals are then posted on the Pitts Library website. Volunteers—either at the library or working remotely—then transcribe the letters and e-mail the transcriptions to Pitts’ archivist, Robert Presutti. Because some documents are difficult to read, each is typically assigned to two volunteers; their efforts are later compared with one another to address possible inconsistencies. Once each document is finalized, the transcription and the original scan are uploaded to the website for public access.

brigitte-fessele.jpgVolunteers for Pitts’ transcription projects come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and include students, professionals from outside the Emory community, and retirees. Among those drawn to the library is German native Brigitte Fessele, who first visited the library on the advice of Pitts volunteer Roy Wise. Fessele was first interested in examining and reading some of the rare materials for herself, and then became so intrigued by the original imprints by Martin Luther and the hymnody collection that she chose to become a library volunteer. Fessele's language skills made her a natural choice to translate handwritten letters in old German, an experience she likens to reading Shakespeare. She says she admires the content and form of these letters written in an age before e-mail and digital documents became the standard.

morgan-engle.jpgSteve Morgan and Lew Engle are retirees interested in finding a way to contribute to scholarship. They volunteer regularly at Pitts, where they’ve digitized thousands of pages of sermon notes found in the personal papers of Henry Edward Cardinal Manning—work that helps scholars understand Manning’s role in the Catholic Church in England and illustrate his influence on English society. His papers are part of the library’s English Religious History Collection, which also includes letters from John Henry Cardinal Newman, a contemporary of Manning’s whose recent beatification drew attention to his papers from scholars worldwide.

yazhu-li.jpgYazhu Li—“Lia” to her friends—began volunteering at Pitts in part to improve her English skills. She earned her undergraduate degree in French and social work at China’s Xiamen University. Now, hoping to enroll in an American graduate school to study accounting, Li has been helping transcribe and translate materials in the Louis Frederick Havermale collection from English to Mandarin. Havermale, a Methodist pastor from Illinois, served as a missionary in China from 1916 to 1922. His papers are beneficial to many interested in Chinese history, both from theological and political standpoints. Li’s transcriptions of Havermale’s work provide valuable historical information on Chinese life shortly after the fall of the Qing Dynasty, when civil war and the actions of Chinese warlords provided a backdrop of violence.

robert-silliman.jpgThe lure of making continuing contributions to scholarship is compelling enough to bring emeritus history professor Robert Silliman back to Emory to volunteer at Pitts. Silliman has been transcribing the sermons of James Archer, a Catholic priest living in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries whose sermon topics include religious persecution, spirituality, and marriage. Having transcribed manuscripts at the American Philosophical Society and Harvard University, Silliman needed little introduction to the work he was asked to do at Pitts. In fact, in his teaching days, he said, one of the most rewarding aspects of transcription was having the opportunity to examine the relationship between authors and their works.

That sort of intellectual curiosity is what makes the volunteer transcription projects at Pitts attractive to so many. There is an allure that encourages volunteers to take on a new document when they complete another, a satisfaction in knowing that, through their efforts, these works can be shared with others around the world.

"It's something unique and different," says retiree Engle. “We can do anything, but we choose to come to Pitts."

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Chris Pollette is reading Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, but he’s too shy to discuss it in public.