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Preserving Canterbury’s history through digitalisation

The women of 19th century Canterbury, in New Zealand, will be more visible in the history of the province thanks to a new crowdsourcing project that aims to harness 21st century technology.

According to a recent press release, the project is looking for computer-savvy volunteers to tag names that appear in the G R Macdonald Dictionary of Canterbury Biography so that they will be computer-searchable.

The University of Canterbury Digital Humanities programme is working with a museum for this initiative.

Background of the project

There are more than 12,000 handwritten index cards of biographical information on 22,000 19th century Cantabrians in the Macdonald Dictionary.

The scanned index cards are currently available on the website of the museum. However, only the heads of each household, which are mainly men, can be digitally searchable.

The project aims to tag and transcribe the hundreds or possibly thousands of other names mentioned in the biographies, including wives, children, business partners and occasionally neighbours.

One of the project’s major benefits is to provide better access to information about the women of 19th century Canterbury.

There are only 64 women who have their own entries and that is because they were high profile and had a public life while many others are hidden in either their husband’s or father’s biography.

This project will give them much more visibility in Canterbury’s historical record.

The dictionary was named after George Ranald Macdonald (1891-1967).

He was a farmer, historian and volunteer at the museum who laboured for 12 years for the biographical information found in the dictionary.

From 1952 to 1964, he scoured newspapers and church registers and walked through cemeteries to read tombstones.

Numerous libraries and archives were visited. Information through personal contacts, radio advertisements as well as newspaper advertisements was searched.

The hard work resulted with a resource that genealogists, family historians, students and academics have treasured for decades.

It will become even more useful if the name-tagging project becomes successful.

Methodology of the project

The index cards have already been uploaded onto the crowdsourcing platform, wherein volunteers can tag and transcribe the names they see.

Platforms make it easy for anyone to contribute from anywhere in the world, in the comfort of their own home at any hour of the day.

This was according to the Senior Lecturer in Digital Humanities and member of UC Arts Digital Lab, which set up the technical side of the project.

Volunteers just need to sign up for a free account on the platform, watch the tutorial and start tagging.

Relatively, the exercise is simple but volunteers may find it fascinating particularly if they are interested in family history, more so if they are interested with the history of Canterbury.

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