Reading other people’s diaries and mail might be frowned upon by many, but not by Milner Library’s Special Collections Librarian, Maureen Brunsdale. Of course, the letters and diaries she peruses are over 100 years old and part of the Decipher History project.

“The obvious romance and intrigue of heretofore unknown handwritten primary sources, like letters or diaries, has been a draw for researchers (and the curious) throughout the ages,” said Brunsdale. “Making items such as these available online gives people the virtual opportunity to become active participants in bringing to light potentially undocumented history.”

The intent behind Decipher History is to help patrons engage with materials from Special Collections in a fascinating new way—by offering them the opportunity to transcribe handwritten manuscripts, diaries, letters, and other documents whose stories have never been shared. Age has faded the ink, but the stories survive—like the now-fully transcribed diary of an unknown wife and mother who recounted on the back of scrap paper her family’s hard-working farm life in 1850s Peoria.

“This started as a way to make these handwritten documents more accessible to researchers,” said Brunsdale. “We can scan and make these artifacts available online for anyone to read, but by transcribing cursive handwriting into typed material it can be keyword searched. That makes these materials much more valuable and usable.”

Illinois State’s Decipher History project started with just five items: a set of three diaries from World War I, the diary written by the farm wife living outside Peoria, and the wife of a circus manager’s diary documenting their travels. Of these, three have been completely transcribed already and two more collections have been added, with several additional collections of letters and diaries being digitized to be added to the site.

To help uncover the mysteries of these handwritten documents, visit the project online.