DIY History

    I have a Bachelor of Arts degree in History. I think I thought I was going to teach – I dreamed of being Indiana Jones, never mind the fact that he was an archeologist. I wanted to discover something amazing that no one else had ever discovered, just be digging into an ancient stack of books somewhere in the depths of a dusty old library. I wanted to travel back in time and meet Abraham Lincoln, or Mozart. I wanted to be in the room when the Declaration of Independence was signed. I wanted to watch Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel. I still want to do all those things, actually, but now I’m a little less starry-eyed, and a lot more practical. I mean, the whole bathing and indoor plumbing thing has sort of grown on me. Regardless, I still love History, and wondering what it must have been like to live hundreds of years ago.

    So imagine my delight when I read an article about DIY History – a project coordinated by the University of Iowa Libraries. UI has scanned thousands of pages of letters, diaries, journals and cookbooks, and has asked the internet at large to help transcribe the scanned documents into searchable text. I started reading the cookbooks, and I couldn’t stop. Yesterday, I read a “medical receipt” which promised to cure the bite of a mad dog. Personally, I think the cure would probably kill one faster than the bite, but someone thought it was important to write down. Some of the older cookbooks use measurements and ingredients that I’d never heard of. One has so many recipes for oysters, I wonder if the author lived on the coast, or just really liked oysters. Some of the recipes are lists of ingredients only, or include instructions like “if too brown they are disagreeable“. Many have no punctuation at all, and others use strange abbreviations. Some are attributed to whomever shared the recipe with the cookbook’s author. The cookbooks are endlessly captivating. I feel like I’m both solving a mystery by deciphering these recipes, and getting to know the person who recorded the recipes. It’s as close to time travel as I’ll ever get, and I love it.

    If you are interested, you can register to help transcribe the documents posted on the UI website. If not, I still encourage you to read some of the documents that have already been transcribed. The Civil War letters are truly like stepping back in time and witnessing the events of the war.

    What fascinates you?

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