The Subtle Art of Postcards: A Newberry Crowdsourcing Project

By Nina Patterson

Postcard from Art in Miniature, The Newberry Library

For the past five weeks or so I have been looking at postcards. Fields, Mountains, Roads, Rest Stops, Motels, Chickens having breakfast in bed (see above): images that one might see winding along Route 66. Each postcard provides a glimpse into a nostalgic past. This project is part of a remote internship offered by the Newberry, an independent research library in Chicago. I have always been enamoured with postcards. I usually buy several every time I visit a new place. I was unexpectedly excited to learn that one who collects postcards is called deltiologist. While my own collection is humble, the Newberry has a staggering number of postcards beginning with the 500,000 unique postcards in the Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection that was acquired by the Newberry in 2016. Since then several other collections have been added.

With so many postcards it would take the permanent staff eons to complete the task of cataloguing and classifying these unique pieces of ephemera. The two main projects that interns this winter have been working on are Picture Postcard America (20th Century American life) and Art in Miniature (early 20th century visual culture and Edwardian-era Britain). We have been using the Zooniverse platform; it is fairly easy to navigate in comparison to some other crowdsourcing platforms that I have previously browsed. The staff at the Newberry have been very helpful and any hiccups with the transcription process usually get resolved within a couple days. We help to classify these postcards using controlled vocabulary as well as assisting in transcribing titles and production numbers.  Along the way we have learned about the value of crowdsourcing, metadata, and data wrangling to GLAM institutions; all things that can hopefully serve us well in future projects.

There are some crowdsourcing projects presently going on at McGill including Data Rescue: Archival and Weather (DRAW) which seeks to uncover “the story of Montreal’s evolving climate captured in the McGill Observatory’s historical weather logs.” These valuable transcriptions aid scientists and researchers to gain a better understanding of the changing environment of the city of Montreal.

So, while it’s looking at a postcard for The Ranchito Motel (the last postcard I came across) or finding out what the temperature was on February 11. 1926, I think crowdsourcing gives us a chance to help with fascinating initiatives often from the comfort of our own homes.

Postcard from Picture Postcard America, The Newberry Library

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