The “IT” of the “Information Wanted” Project

 Written by Margaret Strolle, Karyna  Hylvynska and Chris Byrd

About six weeks ago, the Monday edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a story entitled “Families torn apart by slavery sought lost loved ones in newly archived ads.” It covered a joint project between Margaret Jerrido of the Mother Bethel AME Church and Villanova History Department’s own Dr. Judith Giesberg, that seeks to provide a free database of “Information Wanted”Ads. “Information Wanted” Ads are ads that freed slaves placed in newspapers before, during, and after the Civil War, requesting information on family or friends that the searcher had not seen for many years, usually owing to one of the parties being sold or one running away. This project has been a multistep and sobering experience. Thanks to the article and a subsequent NPR interview, The “Information Wanted” project is becoming very well known. It has taken a team of people to bring it this far, and this article focuses on the technical contributions of volunteers and graduate assistants that make this project possibly.

I (Margaret Strolle) was the first graduate assistant to join the project in Fall 2016, followed later by Chris Byrd that same semester, and by Karyna Hlyvynska and Bonnie Loden this semester. As graduate students, our main jobs are divided into locating and then uploading images of ads. To locate most of the ads, we have to turn to an older technology, microfilm and a microfilm reader. Feeding the microfilm through the two remaining microfilm machines at Falvey, we look for sections that would contain ads. For much of the early days of the project, we focused on Mother Bethel’s The Christian Recorder, which placed many of its ads under a column or titles specifically called “information wanted.” However, they could also be placed under the heading of “Notice.” Once located, the Ads were scanned using the ImageScan program, a program so old it prompts you to save on a floppy disk. Suffice to say, in 2016 and 2017, we save them on USBs. Once a day’s shift at the microfilm machine is completed, it is time to upload them to the website.

The Process of Uploading

Before uploading, the scanned images have to be cropped and, sometimes, go through a Photoshop filter to look clearer. We upload them on our website and assign them a title, usually the name of a person who sent the ad to the newspaper. We then add a short description of the ad (for instance, “John Walker is looking for his wife Peggie”), the name and the date of the newspaper, and list ourselves as contributors. Sometimes the process is really tricky: the newspapers are old, their pages are blurred, torn apart, or darkened by age, the copies might be of low quality. It becomes hard to decipher the names. As time passed, we started discovering that the same person would have their ad posted in multiple issues of the same newspaper over and over again. The text of these ads would be absolutely identical. Perhaps such people paid regularly to the editor to have their ad posted in each issue. It did not make much sense for us to publish multiple copies of the same ad. Thus, the process of uploading became even more complicated: before putting an ad on the website, we had to make sure the same ad had not already been posted. It did slow down the whole process, which is one of the reasons new ads do not appear often on the website.

This is how an uploaded ad looks:

Transcription

The process of transcribing the ads, while fairly straightforward, bears elaborating upon, if only to call attention to its importance in making the text of the ads available for others to search within.  The first step is to register as a user on the informationwanted.org site, which can be accomplished in as little time as it takes one to type in a username, display name, password, and email address and then, of course, to prove that one is human (and not perhaps a clandestine microwave). From there, step two is to register again as a user for MyWiki and the Scripto transcription software. This differs from registering as just a site user in that a potential transcriber must provide their name, another username (though it can be the same as the one used for the regular site), some sort of group affiliation (though one can simply put “unaffiliated”), their email, and their zip code. If one is so inclined, she or he can also provide their reason for wanting to transcribe said ads, but this is not required. After this is completed, the MyWiki administrator will put in the user-provided information and send the new transcriber a temporary password and instructions for how to get started transcribing — the most important one being to make sure to verify one’s email on the MyWiki site. (The time from registering on the MyWiki site to being approved and receiving a password vary slightly depending on if the book the administrator is reading is any good or if he’s baking something.) Once a user is registered in the appropriate places, the time for actual transcribing has almost arrived as they should first study and etch upon their souls the guidelines provided on the informationwanted.org site for proper transcription. These guidelines are thankfully relatively simple: Transcribe the ad exactly as it appears, punctuation and misspellings and all; do not guess if one cannot read a word but instead write “[undecipherable]” where the said word appears in the ad; leave any comments that one might have in an email to the editors of the site; and finally, do not use the “Tab” button for reasons too gruesome to list here. The process of actual transcription is simply to read the ad and re-type what it says into a text box, click submit, and then admire one’s work. Once the ad has been transcribed, its full text (such as places, names, dates, or certain words and phrases) can then be searched by anyone looking for a particular piece of information contained within an ad on the site.

Potential Uses

There are many potential uses for this site. It can be used by genealogists to search for ancestors and/or relatives of ancestors that that were separated by slavery. Teachers at all levels  may also find this site useful as a database of primary sources for African American history in the era of Reconstruction. Historians may also find it useful for the same reasons. The possibilities are manifold. It is simply our job to upload these ads to our free database so that the larger online community may decide how best to use and and learn from them.

This has been an overview of the process of posting these ads. To explore the website please follow this link: http://www.informationwanted.org/ .

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