Volunteers exchanged smiles and virtual high fives in lieu of handshakes and hugs at the much anticipated online VE Day celebration.

Edward Gitre, an assistant professor in the Department of History in the Virginia Tech College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, teamed up with University Libraries experts Sarah Mease, Corinne Guimont, and Joe Forte to host a VE Day virtual celebration in collaboration with Zooniverse. This event celebrated the completion of a crowdsourcing drive to transcribe handwritten survey responses from World War II soldiers as part of The American Soldier project.

Victory in Europe Day, also known as VE Day, celebrates the Allies’ formal acceptance of Nazi Germany’s unconditional surrender in World War II on May 8, 1945.

The ultimate purpose of the project, funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities grant, is to become a part of a searchable site enabling researchers, students, and the public to easily find documents related to their interests. 

“Our online VE Day event marks an important milestone in this multiyear, multi-institutional digital project,” said Gitre. “We set an ambitious goal in our grant proposal that we’d complete the transcription drive in two years. And we did it, thanks to the dedication and volunteerism of thousands of contributors who hail from different corners of the United States and even overseas.”

The online milestone celebration took place on May 8, 2020, on the 75th anniversary of VE Day. The event celebrated the completion of The American Soldier project’s 65,000 transcriptions of uncensored reflections on war and military service and recognized the thousands of dedicated volunteers who made this possible. The one-of-a-kind records were transcribed in triplicate over two years, bringing the number of transcriptions to more than 190,000 pages.

These documents contain many fascinating, firsthand responses and unique perspectives. “When people read these they see the Second World War in a humanized way, and gain perspective from soldiers of all walks of life,” said Mease, University Libraries publishing services specialist. “They make it easier to see the realities of the war, instead of just viewing it as a historic event that happened a long time ago. That’s important, especially for those teaching and learning about the war.”

Originally scheduled to be held in the Newman Library Athenaeum, this 75th anniversary commemorative event moved entirely online. In March, an unexpected surge of traffic hit Zooniverse as people began staying home and teleworking became the norm. The project accelerated as volunteers invested more time in transcribing to meet the project’s ambitious goals. Although the transition to an online-only celebration was challenging, it ultimately provided attendees with multiple levels of interaction.

“There are challenges all the time,” said Gitre. “But I do try to see them as moments for creative intervention and possibility.” 

The VE Day virtual celebration program consisted of interviews, student readings of transcribed documents, and short messages from project stakeholders, historians, humanities advocates, and dedicated Zooniverse transcribers and community members. Participants discussed the project, its importance, and the value of crowdsourcing for the humanities. 

Each man in the assembled group completed the questionnaire form anonymously. Photo courtesy of Ed Gitre from the archives of The American Soldier Project.

Each man in the assembled group completed the questionnaire form anonymously. Photo courtesy of Ed Gitre from the archives of The American Soldier Project.

Forte, University Libraries Athenaeum coordinator and digital humanities specialist, spearheaded content creation for the virtual celebration.

“Preparation for VE Day included my engaging with many folks on this especially collaborative project, and being able to ask them, ‘What does The American Soldier mean to you?’,” said Forte. “My favorite group was a trio of extremely prolific citizen transcribers, with whom Dr. Gitre and I had the pleasure of speaking. Each of them typed out thousands of responses from servicemen. It was very touching to hear about their motivations and the ways in which they felt touched by the candid and personal nature of what they read.”

Transcribing these unexplored documents, which described the soldiers’ hardships, was challenging. No two stories were the same. Some revealed the true grit of wartime, while others exposed the loyal heart of a soldier. These fascinating, almost 80-year-old first-person narratives, handwritten in cursive, brought the soldiers’ accounts to the transcribers in an intimate way. The soldiers cried, pleaded, sacrificed, confessed, and wrote about their military pride and accomplishments.

“You never know what you’re going to encounter in these World War II sources when you read them. Each has the unique stamp of the personality of the soldier who wrote it,” said Gitre. “Our dedicated volunteers and moderators realized that as they transcribed as many as 10,000 documents each. Their contributions were incredible. And we want to honor them for their dedication.”

Years of hard work

Gitre hatched the idea for the project in the reading room of the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland.

“I glimpsed the possibilities for these rare sources when I first encountered them in April 2009. I knew they were unique,” said Gitre. “I also knew, even back then, that the public and scholars would be interested and would benefit if they were made accessible. Because they are uncensored and anonymous, they are raw and revealing. That was the spark. But that spark didn’t have the fuel it needed.”

Only after arriving at Virginia Tech in 2014 could Gitre turn a feeling and idea into a reality. “What has certainly helped to fuel my passion are the responses I’ve encountered as the project took shape, from students, first and foremost, but also from colleagues in history and computer science, and from digital humanists, funding agencies, and the public itself, which has been a special source of inspiration,” said Gitre.

“In a decided way, the project embraces the university’s global land-grant mission with its ‘hands-on, minds-on’ teaching culture, and its forward-pressing Tech for Humanity agenda,” said Gitre.

Tech for Humanity is a university-wide initiative that takes human-centered approaches to address the societal impact and governance of technological innovations.

The University Libraries’ Virginia Tech Publishing became involved in the project several years ago, when it hosted the first of several transcribe-a-thons. Newman Library provided a space for transcribers to learn how to use the platform, collaborate on transcriptions, and discuss what they found in the original documents.

Three additional faculty members from the University Libraries joined Mease, Forte, and Guimont in becoming involved in the project, including Marc Brodsky, public services archivist; Nathaniel Porter, social science data consultant and data education coordinator; and Michael Stamper, data visualization designer and consultant for the arts. 

Ed Gitre (left) and Joe Forte (right) discuss the project from their homes during the Virtual VE Day Celebration.

Ed Gitre (left) and Joe Forte (right) discuss the project from their homes during the Virtual VE Day Celebration.

Other major Virginia Tech contributors to The American Soldier project include Kurt Luther, the initiative’s technical director and an associate professor of computer science in the College of Engineering; Nai-Ching Wang, a project developer who earned his doctorate from the Department of Computer Science in 2018; Michael Hughes, social science consultant and a professor in the Department of Sociology; and Jessica Brabble, a master’s student in the Department of History.

“This is a truly interdisciplinary project connecting historians, computer scientists, librarians, and archivists,” said Guimont, University Libraries digital scholarship coordinator. “It highlights the multiple ways the library can and does support digital humanities research and projects. It’s also helping us plan for ways we can further support this work in the future.”

“In general, this partnership has been a prized opportunity for me,” said Forte. “I believe it stands as an important illustration of both the value of cross-disciplinary projects like this one, and of the way in which the library can be a constructive and facilitating space for disciplines to cross like this.”

The American Soldier team is gearing up to move into the next phase, which is to clean and organize the data gathered from the transcriptions as well as other Army survey data. Then they will develop and launch the free, open access, searchable, user interface for scholars and the public, slated for a spring 2021 release. The team will be working with a Portland-based digital design agency, Cast Iron Coding, to create the open access website so these documents can be shared with the world.

“Once this work is available openly, it will align with the library’s commitment to open access and provide an opportunity for future researchers to build upon it,” said Guimont.

“What’s really special about this project is that it is going to make such a huge amount of information accessible,” said Mease. “There are tens of thousands of documents that will be made searchable for research. That’s a great resource for students at Virginia Tech and elsewhere.”

The team’s eagerness to share this information widely drove this project. “The inspiration of the project is the individual voices expressed through these handwritten, now-transcribed documents. These were written by soldiers in their own hands,” said Gitre. “They make you laugh and feel anger, pride, sympathy, and all sorts of other emotions. While reading these sources, you will encounter World War II in a way you’ve not before, no matter how much you know or have read about the war or how many museums or monuments you’ve visited.”

None of this would have been possible without the dedication of the project’s volunteers. “Our contributors have been so incredibly inspiring, devoted, patient, thoughtful, and generous,” said Gitre. “They have carried us over the finish line, and in more ways than they realize.”

Written by:  Elise Monsour Puckett