Archive for the ‘Multimedia’ Category

Speaking of the Rijksmuseum…

Saturday, November 21st, 2015

Some of you might remember the greatest of all flashmobs that was created to celebrate the reopening of the museum and the return of Rembrandt’s The Night Watch to its original location. It’s been more than two years since I posted it, and I still regularly rewatch the video. It’s just so, so good. A quick refresher for those of you not as obsessed as I or for anyone who may have missed it the first time:

The only bad thing about that sublime video is that it’s too short. I said at the time that I wished there were a director’s cut so we could see more of the story as it unfolds. Well, there isn’t a director’s cut, but there’s a making of video! It was uploaded a week after the first one and since I watched the embed on the blog entry rather than going to the YouTube channel, despite my repeated viewings I didn’t realize the second one was there. I’m making up for it now, though. I’ve already watched it three times. I love the curator puttering around like a kid at Christmas fixing people’s costumes and props. Click the CC icon for English subtitles.

There’s one thing I wish they’d addressed that has niggled at me all these years: why did they cast the taller man as Willem van Ruytenburch (in the fabulous yellow outfit) and the shorter man as Frans Banninck Cocq (in the center with the red sash)? In the painting van Ruytenburch’s shortness is very noticeable, and since he was Banninck Cocq’s lieutenant, their comparative height was a meaningful distinction that communicated their difference in status. The curator sniffed about the purple outfit one of the guards was wearing as inaccurate. Surely he had something to say about the choice to make van Ruytenburch so tall.


The Great Thanksgiving Listen

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

If like me you’ve wept openly at StoryCorpsFriday broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition for the past decade, or at their beautiful animated shorts on PBS, you may have wondered how to go about recording the oral histories of your own loved ones. StoryCorps uses professional radio equipment to record and has a platoon of trained volunteers to facilitate the interviews. Interviews are recorded one at a time in the StoryCorps MobileBooth that travels the United States or in one of the permanent StoryBooths in New York, Chicago, San Francisco or Atlanta.

Despite its limited geographical reach, StoryCorps has been able to record thousands of stories a year and now have more than 65,000 recordings from 100,000 participants. This Thanksgiving, they hope to at least double that figure in just one long weekend. Obviously they don’t have 65,000 sets of radio equipment and facilitators. This goal can only be achieved with new technology, and that’s what StoryCorps has created.

Every year the TED conference awards a $1 million prize to someone with “a creative, bold vision to spark global change.” StoryCorps’ founder Dave Isay was the winner of the 2015 Ted prize and his bold vision was the app, a smartphone app that anyone anywhere in the world with an Android and iOS device could download and use to record high-quality audio.

That vision has now become a reality. More than $400,000 of the prize money went to the development of the app; the rest was spent creating a dedicated website and adding server capacity so that interviews can be uploaded directly to the site. The free app extends StoryCorps’ range to the entire world.

Armed with a working beta of the app, anyone can participate in the Great Thanksgiving Listen. The project seeks to take advantage of a holiday where multiple generations of family and friends are locked together in a house with no way easy way out. The focus of the initiative is on working with high school teachers to encourage their students to record a grandparent or other senior family member during Thanksgiving weekend as part of their social studies, history, civics, journalism and political science classes. There’s a teacher toolkit (pdf) with instructions for students on how to plan and conduct the interview as well as the mechanics of recording and uploading the result. All interviews recorded this weekend will be uploaded not just to the StoryCorps website, but also the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

It’s not just for students, however. Anybody with a compatible device can take their shot at capturing the invaluable oral histories of a whole generation of elders. The app helps users prepare questions, find the best location for the interview, record the conversation on a mobile device, take a photograph to accompany the interview, share the completed recording with friends and family celebrating the holiday and finally upload the interview. It also provides editing tools. All recordings uploaded in the first year will be archived at the Library of Congress as well as on the website.

“In this time of great disconnect and division, we hope the Great Thanksgiving Listen will prove a unifying moment for the nation,” said Dave Isay, StoryCorps’ Founder and President​. “We are excited to use the new StoryCorps app to bring the country together in a project of listening, connection and generosity. Together we will collect the wisdom of a generation and archive it for the future, while at the same time reminding our grandparents how much their lives and stories matter.”

Download the app here and start planning your interview now. If you haven’t watched or heard any of StoryCorps’ interviews, please check them out on StoryCorps’ website. The animations are here, the audio interviews here.

Here’s one example of the kind of profoundly meaningful oral history these conversations record:


Tour the British Museum online with Google

Saturday, November 14th, 2015

The Google Cultural Institute (GCI) and the British Museum have worked together to make it possible people all over the world to enjoy the museum’s many offerings from the comfort of their homes. So far 4,654 objects and artworks have been made available for our perusal. Google’s Street View cameras have trundled through the museum’s vast halls, so you can virtually walk through them from the second basement to the fifth floor, the largest indoor space yet captured on Street View. They’ve even captured the outdoors so you have a stroll around the beautiful museum building itself.

The British Museum has an excellent website with more than 3.5 million objects in its searchable database, 920,000 of them with one of more photographs attached. Many of the pictures are very good, but even the largest of them are modestly sized (the usual caveat regarding my obsession with high resolution photography applies, of course) and there are a significant number that look dated or are in black and white. It’s a wonderful thing, therefore, to have fresh images of thousands of objects in ultra high resolution courtesy of Google’s gigapixel cameras.

For example, the museum’s entry for the Admonitions Scroll, a Chinese painted silk handscroll more than 11 feet long from the 5th to the 8th century that depicts scenes from a 3rd century court poem, has 247 images. If you want to explore the details, you can go through the pictures one by one, but it’s tedious to have to go back and forth and the photo quality is less than satisfying. There are duplicates, old black and white shots and none of the pics I clicked on are more than 750 pixels wide. The scroll looks dingy, the painting dim.

Contrast that with the version on the Google Cultural Institute’s British Museum page. It’s a whole different viewing experience, like someone turned the light on in the room. You can see the whole thing in front of you at once. You can view the work in a depth of detail that you couldn’t possibly achieve in person unless your name is Steve Austin and they’ve made your other eye bionic too. You can see the weave of the silk, the individual hairs in the brushstrokes. It’s stupefying.

In addition to the objects from the permanent collection, there are also online versions of the museum’s temporary exhibitions, six of them right now with more to come. I’ve been pining to see Celtic Life in Iron Age Britain since it opened at the end of September. Gorgeous examples of Celtic metalwork, jewelry, objects of daily use and more are now viewable in detail online. It’s a curated online exhibit, not just a list of objects, arranged in a logical progression accompanied by explanatory notes. No Gundestrup Cauldron, though, sadly. It’s on the National Museum of Denmark’s GCI page, but not in gigapixel fun.

The collaboration between Google and the British Museum has also paved new territory for digital museum offerings. The Museum of the World microsite allows viewers to explore a timeline of artifacts divided into their continents of origin but then linked together by thematic connections. You swoop through time to a sparkly wind chimes sound effect while the objects load as polka dots, different colors for each part of the world — Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania. When you click on one of the dots, you see a small thumbnail and the title of the object and lines radiate outwards connecting it to other objects. If you want to learn more, click again. The detail view has a text explanation of the piece, an audio description introduced by a narrator and expanded on by a relevant curator. Click on the picture to see it in high resolution. On the right side under the audio there’s a map so you can see where the piece came from and then a few thumbnails of related works if you’d like to skip directly their detail views.

I found it thoroughly engrossing. I scrolled all the way to the back of the timeline to the oldest artifact in the museum: a 1.8 million-year-old basalt chopping tool from the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania. It has only one connected piece — an 800,000-year-old Olduvai handaxe — by the related objects thumbnails take you far afield to an archaic Native American birdstone (1,000-1,500 B.C.) and an early 19th century Inuit ulu (a crescent-shaped knife). Once you get to the handaxe, the radiating lines proliferate.

You can browse by continent — just click the name and all the other dots will disappear, click it again for them to return — or by the themes listed in the menu to the right. Click the three squares in the upper left corner to cut the scrolling and jump to specific times.

Seriously this feature is the rabbit hole of all rabbit holes. I would strongly recommend you only click on the first link when you have a nice chunk of time available, because there is no way in hell you’ll be able to stop once you get started. This is ideal lost weekend material.


Lost Oswald the Lucky Rabbit film found in BFI archive

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

Not one to be outdone by the National Library of Norway, the British Film Institute has discovered a lost Walt Disney film starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Unlike Empty Socks, the short found last year in NLN’s subarctic bunker archive of nitrate films, there wasn’t even a 25-clip of Sleigh Bells known to survive. No part of Sleigh Bells has been seen since it made its original release in 1928.

The six-minute animation was found in the BFI National Archive in Berkhamsted by a researcher searching the online catalogue. He recognized the name of the film as one thought lost. The print entered the BFI archive in 1981 as part of a collection of movies from a recently shuttered Soho film studio. It was titled and dated 1931, but had no references to Disney or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. The title was generic enough to not ring any bells (pun intended) and the BFI doesn’t have the manpower to watch every one of the one million films in its archive, so it was just duly catalogued and socked away in storage.

In the movie Oswald skates and plays ice hockey on a lake accompanied by his interspecies lady friend, a cat named Ortensia who looks a little like Felix the Cat in a hat and skirt. It was drawn and animated by Ub Iwerks (Ub did all of the drawing for Disney’s early characters; Walt had limited artistic talent) and Walt Disney under contract with Universal Studios which had hired the pair to get a piece of the lucrative cartoon pie. The Oswald films were Universal’s first animated pictures and while Disney had had some success with the combination of live action and animation in the Alice Comedies series, Oswald was his first big hit.

Unfortunately for Disney, Oswald wasn’t really his, not by law. He belonged to Universal and once the character proved to be a success, Charles Mintz, the producer of the Oswald pictures, wasted no time in planning Disney’s ouster. He stealthily poached all of Disney’s employees except for Ub Iwerks who was loyal to Walt and refused the job offer. Iwerks warned Disney of Mintz’s machinations but Disney handwaved away his concerns. It was only in the spring of 1928 when Disney went to New York to renegotiate his contract that he finally realized Iwerks was right. Not only was Mintz not offering to increase Disney’s take on the popular cartoons, he told him he had to make more films for 20% less money. Mintz had no need to accommodate him since he had an experienced Oswald team ready to go without Disney.

Walt and Ub walked away and were all the better for it since the next idea they came up with was Mickey Mouse. Mintz’s production company took over making Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons for Universal until karma struck. The next year, Universal president Carl Laemmle fired the Mintz-Winkler studio and handed Oswald to Walter Lantz, a director Mintz had hired. Lantz produced Oswald cartoons until 1943 when the character was all but retired. He would go on to invent Woody Woodpecker.

In 2006, the Walt Disney company reacquired the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit property from NBC Universal. They were delighted, therefore, at the rediscovery of Sleigh Bells. Walt Disney Animation Studios restored the print and made a new film print of it as well as digital copies. The restored cartoon will be screened for the first time at BFI Southbank on December 12th, 2015, as part of It’s A Disney Christmas: Seasonal Shorts, a program of holiday-themed films from the late 1920s to the present.

Here’s a brief preview of Sleigh Bells released by the BFI:

Here’s a news story about the find that has some views of the film and its canister which look to be in surprisingly good condition.


Don’t panic! It’s just The War of the Worlds.

Thursday, October 29th, 2015

Seventy-seven years ago, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater broadcast a radio play of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic The War of the Worlds. The next day was Halloween and the newspapers dutifully scaremongered, splashing sensationalized headlines on their front pages about the mass hysteria the radio program had provoked in the listening audience. There were reports of suicides, people being hospitalized for shock, heart attacks and thousands of terrified callers clogging the radio station’s phone lines. Almost all of those reports have proven unfounded, although it is true that more people than usual called the station, some complaining about the show being too scary, others complimenting the show for being so scary, still others wanting to know how they could help the victims of Martian violence.

One of the frightened listeners sued CBS for “nervous shock”, but the suit was dismissed. One man wrote to CBS claiming he had spent $3.25 of his savings for a bus ticket to flee the Martians and only heard it was play 60 miles later. He was saving up to buy a new pair of shoes, so he asked CBS to send him a pair of black men’s shoes, size 9-B. Welles sent him his new shoes, against the advice of CBS’ lawyer.

Orson Welles had already had success on radio in 1937 as the voice of The Shadow and on the stage with his innovative Mercury Theater company when CBS offered him a one-hour anthology series debuting in July 1938. This was prestige listening, adaptations of the great works of literature written and performed by a professional troupe of the New York theater. The introduction emphasized this pedigree, noting it was radio’s “first presentation of a complete theatrical producing company.” Welles and his Mercury Theater cast and crew put on the works of William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar), Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo), Charles Dickens (Pickwick Papers) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), among many others.

It is true that Welles deliberately set out to give his version of The War of the Worlds a realistic news story staging complete with expert commentary, witness interviews and fake reports from military honchos. It wasn’t a hoax, though; just a way of giving the show a fresh, dynamic immediacy and give the audience a nice little scare for Halloween. Still, CBS was concerned that people might confuse it with real news, so they made sure there were disclaimers not just before the opening of the program, but also at the 40 and 55 minute marks.

The show opened with what sounded like standard radio programming — a weather report followed by an orchestra playing music in a hotel ballroom — that was suddenly interrupted by a special new bulletin reporting explosions of hydrogen gas on Mars. Then it was back to the sleepy dance music, then another special bulletin, then back to the orchestra, then another break away to an astronomer describing what he saw on Mars. The tension grew from there as reports got more and more dramatic and the regular programming of music kept getting cut off after a few bars.

The other Mercury Theater broadcasts were more traditional radio plays. Welles’ twist for The War of the Worlds was to use radio conventions to convey the confusion and terror of the original story. He had the cast listen to WLS radio reporter Herbert Morrison’s real-time description of the Hindenburg disaster, still famous today for its “Oh the humanity!” anguish, to get that genuine feeling of a newsman’s increasing horror as tragedy unfolds before him. Cast member Frank Readick played that role to perfection.

The Halloween headlines condemned Orson Welles as a hoaxster and instigator of widespread panic. It was enough to scare CBS into calling a hasty press conference at which Welles expressed his deep regret, insisting he had no idea anybody would take it seriously.

He may or may not have been genuinely contrite (his expression around the 5:35 mark reminds me of Puss in Boots’ big-eyed hat-in-hand look from Shrek), but the story vaulted him to national fame, secured a sponsor (Campbell’s Soup) and another two years of the radio show. It’s also the reason RKO Studios gave Orson Welles an unprecedented two-movie contract granting him complete artistic control of his pictures. Without The War of the Worlds, there would have been no Citizen Kane.

The broadcast still holds up, even though reporters don’t talk like that anymore. The sound effects — especially the panicked crowd noises — are great and the adaptation remains one of exceptional dexterity and verve. Listen for yourself and see what you think. Would have spent all your shoe money on a ticket out of town if you had heard this 77 years ago?


NOVA’s version of the round ark documentary

Friday, October 9th, 2015

The documentary on the reconstruction of the Atra-Hasis ark that aired on Channel 4 in the UK and NatGeo is now on PBS. It’s an episode of the long-running NOVA series entitled Secrets of Noah’s Ark.

(I need to just take a moment to express how I have had it, OFFICIALLY, with purported documentaries entitled “The Secrets of” or “The Mystery of” whatever historical person, place or thing. Someday I would like see a realistic title like “Things We Pretty Much Know about …” and “A Thoroughly Researched and Well Documented Exploration of …” I’m annoyed that a program like NOVA resort to that kind of cliché.)

There are some differences in the programs. The plot is the same — Dr. Irving Finkel and the Atra-Hasis tablet in the British Museum to the attempted ancient boat reconstruction in India — and most of the interview segments are the same with a few additional talking heads of the American persuasion. The narration is different. The British original is gone in favor of a deep-voiced American and the narrated segments have been rewritten. There are some slight changes in thematic emphasis and editing order, but nothing major.

For those of you who weren’t able to see the original, check your local PBS station to see when this NOVA episode re-airs or check On Demand. You can always watch the episode on the PBS website. If you’ve already seen the Channel 4 version, you might enjoy comparing the two.


Striking photographs of immigrants on Ellis Island

Wednesday, September 16th, 2015

The New York Public Library’s digital collection continues to grow as they digitize their huge collections of photographs, manuscripts, maps. They’re up to 838,384 individual items from The New York Public Library’s collections digitized and uploaded to its website. Many of the scans are in high resolution and while the interface can be a bit clunky (no easy mechanism to move from page to page, for example, in some of the books and pamphlets), they make for riveting browsing.

Arranged in subcollections, there are groups with thousands of items — 2,027 turn of the century posters, 64,243 portraits culled from the library’s Print Collection, 8,915 documents from the Emmet Collection of manuscripts focused on the lead-up and aftermath of the Revolutionary War — and single items like book covers or individual pages.

One striking group of photographs that has recently been uploaded is the William Williams collection. Williams was Commissioner of Immigration for the Port of New York at Ellis Island from 1902-5 and 1909-13, some of the busiest years of immigration to the United States. He left his papers, including the pictures he collected from his days at Ellis Island, to the New York Public Library and now the photographs are online. There are an eminently browsable 100 or so pictures and article clippings in the Williams collection, 41 portraits of immigrants going through the process of being allowed into the United States, 49 focused on Ellis Island itself.

Most of the latter were shot by Edwin Levick, a professional photographer with a particular focus on maritime views, which explains why many of his pictures of Ellis Island are taken from the water. The portraits of the immigrants were mostly taken by an amateur, Augustus Frederick Sherman, Chief Clerk of Ellis Island. In sheer fascination and impact, the amateur puts the professional to shame.

Sherman was born in Pennsylvania and moved to New York City in 1889. In 1892, he got a job as a clerk at Ellis Island. He was competent and dedicated and came up through the ranks, ultimately getting promoted to Chief Clerk in 1905. Part of his job was to deal with appeals by detained immigrants who had been blocked from entering the mainland by one of the Boards of Special Inquiry because of illness, crime, suspect associations, etc. The Ellis Island Commissioner of Immigration adjudicated the appeals and determined whether an immigrant could enter the country or was deported. As Sherman had access to detained immigrants as well as immigrants passing through with comparatively few difficulties, he was able to take about 250 photographs of them between 1905 and 1925.

With his eye for the striking image, Sherman was selective about his subjects. He often asked them to pose in their native costumes and he loved to a nice, big family line-up. (The National Parks Service has my favorite photograph along those lines: Mrs. Johanna Dykhof and her 11 children on their way to Minnesota from Holland.) Incidentally, the handsome woman from the French territory of Guadeloupe pictured left was not actually an immigrant to the United States. She was part of a group of Guadeloupean women on their way to Montreal, Canada, where jobs as domestic servants awaited them. They spent one night in Ellis Island — April 6th, 1911 — which was long enough for Sherman to capture beautiful pictures of them.

There are more photographs of people at Ellis Island in this NYPL collection. They were taken by Lewis Hine who was very famous in his day for his compelling images of the working poor. Click on his name in the sidebar to see all of photographs capturing labourers, tenements and a variety of social ills in the NYPL. The Library of Congress has thousands of pictures of poverty-stricken children working in dreadful conditions taken by Hines for the National Child Labor Committee. They will haunt you.

Today Ellis Island is a National Park and has been extensively restored. The main building opened as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum in 1990. In May of this year, the Peopling of America Center® (note to self: trademark the Verbing of Museum Names before someone else beats me to it) opened, expanding the scope of the museum to cover the whole history of immigration before and after Ellis Island was in operation.


DVR alert: Drunk History is back tonight!

Monday, August 31st, 2015

The new season of Drunk History premieres on Comedy Central tonight at 10:30 EST. I’ve been a loyal viewer since it was on YouTube and while the transition to television was a little awkward — a sketch on the short-lived Funny or Die HBO show — it has found its footing on Comedy Central and is now heading into its third season.

In the first two seasons of the Comedy Central show, each episode revolved around a city as a unifying theme. Three comedians told a story each about, say, Detroit or New York City of Nashville, and it worked because hometown yarns are always good fun, and anyway history is so dense and rich that there’s no chance of so broad a range as an entire city feeling limited. Still, I missed the theme shows of the olden days, so I was delighted to see a few of them in season two (First Ladies, American Music) and they’re back this season. The first episode has a theme, in fact, the history of science, one of my favorite subtopics.

If you haven’t seen it before, I envy you, because you can watch every episode of the first two seasons on Comedy Central’s website with enthralled new eyes. The episodes are just over 20 minutes long, so you can totally marathon through all 18 of them in less than seven hours. I’m not saying you should call in sick, but you should probably call in sick. Priorities, man.

Drunk History co-creators Derek Waters and Jeremy Connor, were on a panel at this year’ Comic-Con. Waters talks about the inception of the show — Otis Redding was involved — and how it took off, the processes of narration and reenactment, topics they thought would work but turned out to be buzzkills, ie, the Donner Party and serial killer H.H. Holmes. Fun fact: the first season they made narrators tell two stories which means they were drunk non-stop from 3:00 in the afternoon until after the wee hours of the next morning. Oh, and the narrators have to blow in a breathalyzer regularly throughout filming to ensure they are efficiently but not dangerously wasted. Guest stars this season include Octavia Spenser, Parker Posey, Will Ferrel, Josh Hartnett and Maya Rudolph.

If you’re a fan of the show, you’ll wish the panel video were longer. More showing how the sausage is made!

** Embed removed due to stupid autoplay. Have a nice, quiet link instead. **

The follow-up Q&A is, alas, very brief, but it still manages to cover a couple of key questions I’ve been curious about, most significantly how are the stories chosen and by whom.

** Second embed also removed due to stupid autoplay. Link. **


1,000,000 minutes of historical news on YouTube

Thursday, July 23rd, 2015

Remember when British Pathé uploaded their archives to YouTube last year and I was all “Smell ya later, guys. I’ma be watching newsreels for the next 48 hours straight.”? Well, those 85,000 historic films comprising 3,500 hours of footage were a modest little rabbit hole compared to this one. The Associated Press and its partner British Movietone are putting their entire archives on YouTube. That’s a grand total of more than 550,000 videos and 16,500 hours of footage filmed from 1895 until the present. The British Movietone channel will host the oldest pieces, footage from 1895 through 1986. The AP channel has plenty of historical news as well, but also focuses on current events with new film from its breaking news channel added daily.

They’re also bringing together the past and the present in a very clever way. In the wake of the publication of that video of the future Queen being taught how to do the Nazi salute in 1933 when she was seven years old, British Movietone put together a collection of videos showcasing pre-World War II attitudes to Nazism and Fascism in England. Even polar bears were being taught the Nazi salute in 1934.

In happier memories, English football fans won’t want to miss the glorious conclusion of the 1966 World Cup final between England and West Germany in color for the first time. (The whole match is available in black and white here for comparison.)

The 1906 San Francisco earthquake, filmed almost 110 years ago:

I remember this clip like it was yesterday:

The AP has been very slow to adapt to the brave new world of free online content. It wasn’t that long ago that they were issuing cease-and-desist letters to bloggers who quoted too much of an article. They’ve had their video archives available on their own website for some time, but only unembeddable, painfully low resolution previews. The good stuff had to be paid for, which left it the province of documentarians and big budget news outlets. It’s nice to see the AP finally catch on to the fact that they’ll get more licensing requests by opening up their archives to the place pretty much everyone goes to look for videos rather than by keeping them squirreled away on their website.

Alright guys, smell ya later. If you don’t hear from me in a month, send food and water. I won’t be needing soap BECAUSE I’M NEVER LEAVING THE HOUSE AGAIN.


Millions of Freedmen’s Bureau records digitized

Sunday, June 21st, 2015

When African Americans research their genealogy, they often hit what is known as the wall: no records to be found before the 1870 United States Federal Census which was the first to enumerate former slaves. Before that number of slaves he owned was noted under the master’s entry, but it was purely statistical. There were no individual names listed. The first federal census since emancipation recorded the name, location, age, birthplace, familial relationships, marital status, occupation, ability to read and write, the total value of a person’s estate and more. That’s rich information, but it doesn’t link former slaves to their past so it’s usually a dead end for genealogists.

There is one other federal source for precious information on formerly enslaved Americans that predates 1870: the records of the Freedmen’s Bureau. The Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands was a federal agency created in March of 1865 with the end of the Civil War in sight to help the freed slaves in the 11 states of the Confederacy (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia), border states Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Missouri and the District of Columbia. With four million people free but destitute, the Freedmen’s Bureau ran a relief operation providing food, clothing, medical care and temporary housing in camps. Over the course of its seven years of operation, the Bureau helped freedmen locate family members separated by war and the sale of human beings, founded and supported schools, performed marriages (slave marriages were illegal so the Bureau often solemnized and legalized couples who had been de facto married for years), provided jobs and banking, oversaw labor contracts between former slave owners and former slaves, resettled freedmen on abandoned lands, represented former slaves in court, helped soldiers and sailors secure their back pay and future pensions.

The records generated by the Freedmen’s Bureau therefore cover an immense amount of ground. They include key information like the name of former masters and plantations that would allow genealogists to delve into the pre-Civil War history of African American families. The National Archives has preserved FB records on microfilm and made them available to researchers at the National Archives building in Washington, DC, and at regional archives in California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, Missouri, New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, Washington State. Some of the microfilm records have been digitized, but only a fraction of them and without name indexing which would allow people to look up individual family members and pull all their records.

FamilySearch, a non-profit genealogy organization run by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has already digitized some of the Freedman’s Bureau records — 460,000 records of the Freedmen’s Bank, 800,000 records from Virginia — but on Friday, the 150th Juneteenth, it announced a major initiative to digitize and index the names of freedmen recorded in 1.5 million Bureau records. In collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Afro-American Historical and Genealogical Society and the California African American Museum, the project seeks to mine raw records for names of freedmen and refugees and make the searchable database available for free online.

In order to complete so vast project, FamilySearch is enlisting the power of the crowd. There’s a dedicated website, Discover Freedmen, where volunteers can learn more about the digitization project. If you would like to help digitize the Freedman’s Bureau records, you must first download FamilySearch’s dedicated indexing program and then register an account. A quick introductory video explains how to use the program, but it’s fairly intuitive and user friendly. Once you’re registered and the software is up and running, click the Download Batch button, click Show All Projects and scroll down to US – Freedmen’s Bureau projects. Here’s a list of all the FB batches. There are labor contracts, education records, court records, hospital records, land records, records of complaints, employment, military service claims and rations issued. Only the indexing of the medical records is close to completion; most of the batches have barely been touched.

After you’ve selected a batch, the image of a record will appear in your software. Your job is to scour it for name of anyone who is not a Bureau official and enter any names you find in the appropriate data entry fields. If you have any difficulty reading handwriting, you can view the next and previous documents which might have associated information written more legibly. You can also use the Share Batch feature to enlist the aid of other indexers. If you just can’t make heads or tails of it, you can Return Batch to give it to other indexers.

To get started, download the indexing program here. When you open it up after installation, it will prompt you to register. After that, wade into the records of your choice. If all goes well, the project is expected to take a year after which the records will be exhibited at the opening of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in late 2016. You can search by ancestor name right now on the Discover Freedmen website (click Discover in the header menu), although of course there are many fewer names in the database than there will be next year.





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