The Library of Congress Needs Your Help Transcribing Clara Barton's Diaries, Correspondences, and Other Rarely Seen Papers

Clara Barton photographed by Charles R. B. Claflin in 1865.
Clara Barton photographed by Charles R. B. Claflin in 1865. / Liljenquist Family Collection of Civil War Photographs, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Like many important historical figures you learn about in grade school, Clara Barton has been distilled into a couple salient accomplishments: she was a nurse during the Civil War, and she founded the American Red Cross.

Though impressive, these details don’t exactly capture how fascinating her life truly was. Barton survived two near-death experiences, first when she contracted dysentery as a 5-year-old (neighbors, assuming she would die, actually started spreading the word about her death prematurely). And again during the Battle of Antietam, when a bullet tore through her dress sleeve. “I have never mended that hole in my sleeve,” she later wrote.

The “Angel of the Battlefield” also founded a public school in New Jersey, established an organization to help family members track down missing Civil War soldiers, and really loved cats. An Indiana Congressman even sent her a black and white kitten as a thank-you gift for her relief efforts at Antietam; she named it Tommy.

The reason we know so much about Barton’s life is mostly because she chronicled it in books like The Story of My Childhood and A Story of the Red Cross. But for every widely circulated work of Barton’s, there are thousands of private pages—letters, diary entries, poems, speeches, and more—that few people have ever seen.

To make all those documents more easily accessible, the Library of Congress is currently digitizing the whole collection, and they’re asking the public to help transcribe it. The largest category that still needs transcription is a series of letterbooks with Red Cross-related correspondence and personal reflections on her career from 1876 through 1911. Anyone participating in the project will quickly realize that writing letters was as integral to 19th-century jobs as sending emails is to present-day ones.

If you’re interested in transcribing a bit of Barton’s legacy, you can learn more and sign up here.