Why We Transcribe: Crowdsourcing for Provenance

By Megan Burdi
August 8, 2017
Detail of transcription of a letter from Georges Seligmann

Archivist Megan Burdi looks at the process of transcription and how it aids research and improves access.

Letter from Georges Seligmann next to its transcription
Georges Seligmann letter to Francois Gerard-Seligmann, 1949 Feb. 11, Jacques Seligmann & Co. records, 1904-1978, bulk 1913-1974. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, next to its transcription.

Since its inception in in July of 2013, the Smithsonian Transcription Center has been a valuable resource for units of the Smithsonian Institution to harness the power of crowdsourcing to transcribe digitized records. With the help of digital volunteers from all over the world, the Archives of American Art is working towards adding a new, enhanced layer of accessibility to the Jacques Seligmann & Co. records: full-text keyword searching.

Archivists work hard to make collections accessible to researchers, both physically in our Manuscript Reading Room, and virtually through online finding aids and digitized collections. Finding aids are a guide which assist researchers in locating where information is found within a collection. Digitized collections make it possible for researchers to view collections from thousands of miles away, so that the content contained within the documents isn’t limited to in-person exploration.

Full-text searchable records, made possible through transcription, take accessibility to the next level. Access to information embedded within documents is no longer limited by access points (for example: folder titles devised by archivists, or subject headings defined by catalogers). In fully transcribed, digitized collections exact names, dates, or subjects can be found as easily as the hours of your favorite restaurant in a search engine. It reveals data embedded within records that could only previously be found by meticulously sifting through collections. Transcription saves researchers time.

This brings us to the Archives’ most recent endeavor in the Smithsonian Transcription Center, the Jacques Seligmann & Co. records. The Seligmann records are among the world’s foremost resources for World War II provenance research. The collection documents the business dealings of international art galleries which were active for nearly a century, and contains invaluable information for tracing works of art which passed through the galleries’ holdings: information about sales and purchases, collectors private and institutional, and deals potential and realized.

A provenance researcher might spend hours looking through the Seligmann stock books and correspondence online, searching for one artist’s name, one collector, one stock number, or one work of art in order to trace its history of ownership. Now, any of those terms can be used for a keyword search in the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center, and lead to the exact pages where the term appears. Fully transcribing the collection also assists the researcher in deciphering cryptic handwriting. Dedicated and hardworking volunteers have already collaborated to provide transcripts, viewable alongside the digitized documents in the Smithsonian Online Virtual Archives and on the Smithsonian Transcription Center website.

letter from Harriet B. Lanier
Harriet B. Lanier letter to Jacques Seligmann, ca. 1921, Jacques Seligmann & Co. records, 1904-1978, bulk 1913-1974. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.
List of gallery measurements taken by Rene Seligmann
Gallery measurements prepared by René Seligmann, 1926 Aug. 31, Jacques Seligmann & Co. records, 1904-1978, bulk 1913-1974. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Transcription is engaging, challenging work for digital volunteers. Some documents are almost impossible to transcribe due to format or handwriting, like this letter from Harriet B. Lanier to Jacques Seligmann, which took eight volunteers sixteen attempts over several days to complete. Documents from the Seligmann records are in both French and English, so francophones—native or elementary speakers—have the opportunity to combine the challenge of distinctive handwriting and translation. How would you go about transcribing something like this list of gallery measurements sent by René Seligmann (nephew and employee of Jacques) back to the office in Paris?

Digital volunteers have made impressive discoveries while transcribing the Jacques Seligmann & Co. records. Amy Heggemeyer reported her finding via Twitter, quoting a letter from Georges Seligmann to Francois Gerard-Seligmann dated February 11, 1949: “In the last days of December, Somerset Maugham came in & paid me a very charming visit. I showed him a number of things, one especially attracted his attention – ‘The Green Dancer’ by Degas, that you know well.” It is difficult to tell whether the sale was achieved or not; as the letter says that the writer did not purchase the painting that day but promised to return, we may find the answer in another document as transcription continues.

Because the project is ongoing, there will be many more stories about how works of art change hands to unravel as digital volunteers and Archives of American Art staff work towards the full transcription of the Jacques Seligmann & Co. records. Watch our progress on the Archives’ projects page, and consider participating as a digital volunteer yourself. Join the conversation on Twitter @ArchivesAmertArt using the hashtags #volunpeer or #Seligmann. You never know what discoveries you’ll make!

Megan Burdi is an archivist at the Archives of American Art.

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