The John Torrey Papers: Increasing Accessibility with Full Text Transcriptions in BHL

black and white portrait of a young man, john torrey

Drawing of John Torrey by Sir Daniel MacNee. From the collection of Sir William Hooker, The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, England.

Since July 2016, the papers of taxonomic botanist John Torrey (1796-1873) have been the focus of a digitization and crowdsourced transcription project at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). Digitizing and Transcribing the John Torrey Papers, organized in coordination with the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, was created in an effort to digitize and make virtually accessible the correspondence of John Torrey and his colleagues, specifically letters received by Dr. Torrey.

Access to the correspondence of Dr. Torrey is particularly useful to natural scientists and natural historians alike as these letters provide a glimpse into the thought process and workflow for many of the 19th century’s greatest botanical minds. These letters are filled with a variety of different content, including commentary on plant taxonomy, personal biographical details, and anecdotal information on the daily lives of these natural scientists. The content within these letters aid in our understanding of the realities faced by these pioneering botanists, including the shift from the Linnaean system to the natural system and the systemic challenges faced by individuals in an emerging profession..

The John Torrey Papers collection contains over 9,500 pages from more than 350 correspondents, including Asa Gray, Amos Eaton, and Joseph Henry. The collection is organized alphabetically by correspondent then chronologically by the date each letter was written. Each page of each letter is scanned as a .tif file and uploaded to Macaw, BHL’s metadata management system, which aggregates the .tif file with a New York Botanical Garden MARC XML record. Once appropriate metadata has been applied in Macaw, the correspondence are uploaded to the Biodiversity Heritage Library Collection in the Internet Archive. The correspondence’s placement in the BHL Collection then allows for BHL to harvest new material from the Internet Archive on a weekly basis.

Digital content management is a crucial aspect of the project, but the heart of the process lies in the crowdsourced transcriptions done by volunteers from the New York Botanical Garden. These volunteers, recruited through citizen science outreach events, workshops, and tabling opportunities at various locations, work on the transcription platform From the Page, which is one of three transcription platforms whose exports are currently accepted by the Biodiversity Heritage Library, allowing the automatically-generated OCR for these items to be replaced with crowdsourced transcriptions, enabling full text search.

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A screenshot of a completed transcription from John Pierce Brace to John Torrey (May 1831) in From the Page.

The work done by these volunteers is a contribution to the project for two reasons. First, the handwriting, colloquialisms, and personal shorthand of many of Dr. Torrey’s correspondents are exceptionally difficult to read or interpret. With the correspondence of many correspondents containing several hundred pages, it takes a considerable amount of time for our volunteers to develop a proficiency capable of not only accurately deciphering poor handwriting but also of uncovering the intention or context of particular writings.

Second, the transcriptions produced by the Garden’s volunteers coupled with BHL’s new support for transcriptions facilitates full text searching of materials that would otherwise be unavailable. The introduction of full text searching to the world of transcriptions is extremely impactful as it allows researchers to execute a more thorough examination of resources available to them at a faster pace and with higher levels of productivity. A prime example of this is the Biodiversity Heritage Library’s page index of scientific names, as seen in the lower left hand corner of the figure below.

In effect, the Digitizing and Transcribing the John Torrey Paper’s volunteers are the bridge between the content we are looking for and how we look for it.

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Screenshot of the completed John Pierce Brace page once the transcription and image files have been matched in BHL.

To date, more than 7,000 pages have been transcribed and more than 6,000 transcribed pages are available for view in BHL, but the goals of the Digitizing and Transcribing the John Torrey Papers project still have not been met.

With less than 1,500 pages remaining, the New York Botanical Garden is in search of new volunteers to help reach our goal and transcribe some of our most interesting correspondents remaining to be done such as William Jackson Hooker, the former Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and New England natural scientist Dewey Chester. While many of our volunteers are drawn to the project due to their interest in botany, many more are captivated by narratives not typically associated with botany, such as Carl Bogenhard’s struggles as an immigrant in the United States or Jacob Whitman Bailey’s experimentation with photography.

If you would like to become a volunteer transcriber for the Digitizing and Transcribing the John Torrey papers project, you can sign up online here or email for more information or assistance with the sign up process.

If you would like to learn more about the life of John Torrey, works he published, or plants named after him, please visit out digital exhibit “John Torrey: American Botanist.”

Avatar for Richard Jones
Written by

Richard Jones is the Transcription Coordinator for the Digitizing and Transcribing the John Torrey Papers Project at the New York Botanical Garden. Richard's responsibilities for the project include volunteer management, quality control of transcriptions, metadata, and uploading of transcriptions to BHL.