Virtual Volunteering, Retirement Project 2.0

Today’s post comes from Suzanne Isaacs of the Digital Public Access Branch in the Office of Innovation. 

Recently I met Alex Smith through an email he sent to Through our correspondence I learned that he began transcribing our records as a retirement project. I was really interested in transcription through the eyes of a Citizen Archivist and Mr. Smith was kind enough to answer my questions.

If you would like to become a Citizen Archivist and tag, transcribe, subtitle or upload and share visit

Tell us a little about yourself – What did you do before retirement?


I was a college administrator before retirement. For 30 years I was the registrar at Susquehanna University (so on a small scale I am used to dealing with records), and prior to that I was the director of continuing education. I received a B.A. in English at Bowdoin College and an M. A. in English at the University of Chicago. I have always loved history, but I have never done much work involving primary documents before.


How did you find out about transcription in the National Archives’ Catalog?

Late last year I read a brief newspaper article about the transcription project (I think that it was in the New York Times arts and entertainment section), and it immediately got my attention. Like many people on the verge of retirement, I was increasingly concerned about how I was going to handle the void created by no longer having to go to the office, and this project seemed fascinating to me. It really appeared to be an ideal option – I could do it from home or from the library at whatever pace I chose, I had the opportunity to pursue topics that interested me (a common question I get from friends is “Do they send you documents to transcribe?” and I explain that the transcriber is in complete control of finding whatever material which he or she would like to do, whether it’s Al Capone, Harry Truman’s diary, or First Ladies’ recipes. The same flexibility pertains to the length of the document. If I have a quarter of an hour of free time with no particular way to fill it, I can log on and transcribe a telegram or a couple of menus or one of the index cards for the Office of Indian Affairs and have a sense of productivity rather than of having just wasted time), if I needed to take time off for a vacation or for family matters I would not inconvenience anyone, and the project allowed me to go on learning (and in an entertaining manner at that). When I logged in for the first time this June I found that the reality was even better than my expectations had been.

How many have you transcribed?

According to the My Account feature which your website has, I have entered 576 documents during the month of June, which is the first month I have worked on this project.

How do you select your records for transcription? Do you have a favorite subject area?

When I started I thought that I was going to select records by favorite topics (e.g. I have a long-standing interest in the Titanic, so I entered that as one of my first topics). However, I have found that one of the major pleasures of this process to me is coming upon the unknown. I began by entering the topic “telegram,” since I thought that most telegrams would be relatively short and in printed form, so they would be a good choice for easing my way into transcription. In the course of transcribing telegrams, I came across one from prohibition agents in the 1920’s, and it made me curious about their work so I entered “prohibition.” This led to an intriguing series of documents from a couple of agents who were investigating the seemingly corrupt mayor of Tacoma Washington, who appeared comically inept at defending himself against their questions. Another telegram came from Cordell Hull, in whom my father had had an interest, so I entered Cordell Hull’s name as a topic and found a large number of letters between Hull and Franklin Roosevelt. For me the process has become sort of like those lucky-dip booths which they used to have at county fairs, where you threw a fishing line behind a screen and discovered what surprise prize you pulled out. I enter names of public figures from books I have been reading (e.g. Jeffrey Frank’s study of the relationship between Nixon and Eisenhower led me to enter Sherman Adams, John Bricker, Meade Alcorn, and Ann Whitman, among others), but sometimes now I will just enter a first or last name like “Edith” or “Chapman” and see what sort of documents appear. Similarly, I will enter a broad topic like “family” or “tax” or “execution” or “treason” and see which of the results most interests me. This makes sure there is a lot of variety in the process and keeps my interest level high.

You mention you’ve convinced friends to start transcribing too. What do you tell them? We’d love to hear your pitch!

I honestly don’t have a pitch which has recruited others to the site. The process really seems to sell itself to my friends who are in my age group. I just start telling them enthusiastically about the sort of things I am discovering in the archives and they get intrigued. I say that I have transcribed a telegram of congratulations to Jack Kennedy on getting the Democratic presidential nomination from Harpo Marx, who wrote, “1. Congratulations. 2. Do you need a harp player in your cabinet?” I tell them that I have transcribed the WWI draft registration documents for Ty Cobb and Fred Astaire, a petition to Woodrow Wilson from Jane Addams protesting the deportation of Emmeline Pankhurst, the FBI interview with Jack Ruby’s sister, the last telegram to the Secretary of State from the Saigon Embassy saying, “We’re evacuating at midnight,” some of Alger Hiss’s deposition (he probably was unwise in closing with “I believe my record in government and outside speaks for itself.” ), and the correspondence from the mayor of Kent, Ohio asking the Ohio National Guard for assistance in quelling the student protests, which includes the unfortunate phrase “I leave the mode and means of execution to your discretion.” Even seemingly dry documents may include a happy surprise. After the flu pandemic of 1919 the U. S. Navy came up with a list of recommendations to prevent contagion. In among the usual statements about staying in well-ventilated areas and not coughing in public was the injunction “Don’t expectorate promiscuously.” Hearing about such things seems to make the past more vivid and to intrigue some of my friends, who become interested in finding out what they might discover among the tens of thousands of documents to be transcribed. There also is an interest in seeing what indeed qualifies as a historical document. When I was talking with our university archivist about my surprise at finding scores of Bess Truman’s menus in the archives, she quickly told me that these could be very interesting to a historian in a couple hundred years in the same way that the university archivist would really love to know the daily menus of Martha Washington or Abigail Adams.

The other appeal to my recently retired friends is the chance to do something useful. Retirement gives many opportunities for leisure pleasure – reading, gardening, travel – and for helping with family activities. What many of us who are retired lack, however, unless we are active in civic or church groups, is any sense of worthwhile activity beyond the realm of the family. If our jobs have been important to us, this is a serious loss, and I think that finding a sense of purpose becomes one of the major challenges of old age. A couple of the people who have expressed an interest in this project were quite explicit about the pleasure it would give them to be doing something that matters for an organization as important as the National Archives.

5 thoughts on “Virtual Volunteering, Retirement Project 2.0

  1. A terrific profile of what virtual volunteering looks like, and what an impact it can have for both the organization and the volunteer. I’ll create a link to this on the Virtual Volunteering wiki, at

    And for anyone interested in creating assignments for online volunteers, how to effectively manage and support those volunteers, etc., there’s The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook:

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