Student plans crowd-sourcing project
to put school founder’s letters online © Dec. 6, 2012, Norwich University Office of Communications

Computer security student Carter Manning with a few of more than 3,500 letters to and from Norwich founder Capt. Alden Partridge. Manning is developing tools to facilitate crowd-sourced digital transcriptions of the collection.

photo by Jordan Silverman, staffComputer security student Carter Manning with a few of more than 3,500 letters to and from Norwich founder Capt. Alden Partridge. Manning is developing tools to facilitate crowd-sourced digital transcriptions of the collection.

Within Norwich University’s Archives and Special Collections there are five boxes containing more than 3,500 letters to and from the University’s founder, Capt. Alden Partridge. Thanks to a crowd-sourcing project led by a Norwich student, these letters will soon be available to history students and buffs around the world.

“I kind of jumped into it blindly, not fully expecting what I was getting myself into,” laughed Carter Manning, a Class of 2015 Computer Security and Information Assurance major from Northfield, Vt., home of Norwich’s campus. His three-credit internship is centered on creating a database and preparing the letters for transcription by an online community of volunteers.

Manning is developing the design and code for the web application. The archive staff will manage quality control.

It’s opened my eyes to what an archive is and how one runs it.

Carter Manning,
CSIA student

Crowdsourcing involves outsourcing tasks to a distributed group of people. For a project involving a large trove of information like the Partridge correspondence, crowd sourcing is very useful according to Jeremy Hansen, assistant professor of computer security and project advisor. It involves people “doing simple, hopefully enjoyable things that, when added together, have a much greater effect,” he said.

As an example, Hansen cited the 1940 Census Community Project, a recent effort sponsored by the National Archive and several genealogical websites through which the 1940 U.S. census data was indexed and made public within a few months. Now a fully searchable database, the free index of records and images is available in perpetuity.

“I saw the project as an opportunity for Carter to gain practical experience and do something that is actually useful,” said Hansen.

Manning, a civilian student, has transcribed several of the letters already from the dense, cursive handwriting. He was attracted to the project because of an interest in history and, “how people spoke during different time periods.”

“When I got to school here I wanted to learn more about Partridge,” he said. “Last year, I wrote a paper on the pedestrian excursions Partridge used to lead, so I was somewhat familiar with the archives when I started.”

He was struck by how the letters illustrate the direct way people communicated with Partridge and each other.

“Some of the letters were from guys writing to Partridge saying, ‘Hey, what’s the next year going to look like?’ ‘What uniforms are we going to have?’ or ‘I’m at this location, I’ll be back at this point in time,’ just things like that,” said Manning. “I actually haven’t transcribed anything from Partridge himself yet but I fully expect that to be some pretty interesting writing.”

Gail Wiese, assistant archivist of the Norwich University Archives and Special Collections, said the entire University community has a unique interest in Norwich’s history.

“Alden Partridge is a big part,” she said.

Partridge (1785-1854), founded the University in 1819 in Norwich, Vt., pioneering an American style of military education. His guiding principles about citizen soldiery remain the foundation of a Norwich education.

Among letters transcribed thus far by Manning and the archives staff are missives from parents like Mary Smith of Richmond Hill near Natchez, Miss., who in 1825 wrote to Partridge of her worries about how her two sons would fare in the cold.

“...if parents wished their children to have more flannel, blankets, warm socks, &c that Capt Partridge would not object,” she wrote. “This I will consider as a favor done me, should it not be agreeable to your rules. Boys so long accustomed to a warm climate must surely feel your cold winter's severely—and If great precautions are not used they might take a severe cold, and pleurisy, or some bad effects might possibly be the result.”

“When students, parents, or alumni read those letters they can really connect with the position those parents ... those students were in nearly 200 years ago, and have a sense that although all this time has gone by they still have the same concerns for young people just starting their college education,” said Wiese.

Digitizing the Partridge letters probably will not happen until 2013, explained Wiese. The process involves scanning, recruiting volunteers transcribers and adding the items to the archives’ digital collection management software.

“My hope is that the first of these activities, particularly the scanning and metadata creation, can begin in Summer 2013 and that we may have enough images of scanned letters ready to look for volunteers in Fall 2013,” she said.

Despite a three-week delay due to injury, Manning is progressing on a rough draft of the transcription interface for the end of the Fall 2012 semester. The experience has added to his appreciation for the role of Norwich archivists.

“I really have a new mindset for what they do and a very heightened respect for what they do,” said Manning. “It’s opened my eyes to what an archive is and how one runs it.”