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John Muir's Journals: Read, Decipher, Share

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John Muir resting on the trail to Hetch-Hetchy (University of the Pacific © 1984 Muir-Hanna Trust)

Update, April 21, 2016:
On the 178th anniversary of John Muir's birth, there's still an opportunity to become a "citizen curator" of his work.

Michael Wurtz, head of special collections at the University of the Pacific -- home to the largest collection of John Muir material in the world -- says there's still plenty of work to be done transcribing Muir's handwritten journals. The journals have all been scanned, but many still need typed transcriptions. As a volunteer, you can transcribe an entire journal, or just a single page. Dive into the "What Was Muir Thinking?" project here.

Wurtz says about two dozen more of Muir's notebooks will be scanned and added to the ongoing project this summer.

Original Post, March 20, 2015:
Michael Wurtz unlocks a door to history when he steps into the archive room at the University of the Pacific’s Holt-Atherton Special Collections. Rows of compact shelving lined with acid neutral boxes hold the key to John Muir’s inner world. There are books and articles written by the early conservationist and founder of the Sierra Club, but there are also the leather- and hard-bound journals he carried with him on long treks not only here in California but around the world.

“We have the largest collection of John Muir material in the world,” says Wurtz, head of special collections. This includes 78 of Muir’s handwritten journals. All of them have been scanned and are visible online, but about half of them still need typed transcriptions. Wurtz wants the public to help out.

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“Let’s let them discover, let’s let the public be what I like to call 'citizen curators,' ” he says.

Many of Muir’s journals were the starting point for Muir’s magazine articles and books. But there are also hundreds of pages where people can make their own discoveries about what Muir was thinking initially, says Wurtz. In fact, he’s called the Web page where the transcription process for citizen curators begins “What Was Muir Thinking?


Wurtz says one volunteer chose a journal describing the very hike she plans to take this summer.

“It was practically giving her chills to think, ‘I get to walk in John Muir’s footsteps next summer and see it exactly as John Muir saw it 150 years ago,’ ” says Wurtz.

Anyone can log onto “What was Muir Thinking?” and start transcribing. That’s the easy part.

“Muir was very economical with paper, as you can see looking at these journals,” says history professor Bill Swagerty, director of the John Muir Center at the University of the Pacific. “He would even write around the edges and go to the frontispiece and back piece on a typical ledger. He wrote in pencil.”

And looking at the journals, it’s clear there is writing everywhere. Swagerty’s done his own share of transcribing, including 2½  journals Muir wrote on his world tour in 1903 and 1904. Sixty typewritten pages later and Swagerty was done. “I got to know his abbreviation system well,” he says.

John Muir's journal June 1889, Yosemite Trip. The transcription is on the left.
John Muir's journal June 1889, Yosemite Trip. The transcription is on the left. (University of the Pacific © 1984 Muir-Hanna Trust.)

Swagerty says transcribing the journals means scholars worldwide can run computer-driven searches for key words. He’s done that many times himself for a book he’s writing on Muir and indigenous peoples.

“If I type in a word like native or Indian or Native American, then I’ll see every time he used that word,” Swagerty says. “So it’s really helpful.”

He says he’s been surprised by Muir’s interest in cultural relativism and his appreciation of indigenous cultures.

“My hypothesis is that he came to the conclusion that some societies worldwide were happier with less modern conveniences,” Swagerty says.

All volunteer work is cross-checked by university staff, says Wurtz. And there are specific guidelines online.

“It tells you what to do if you see illegible words, crossed-out words, abbreviations,” he says. "And there are lots of abbreviations."

Wurtz says one of his favorite abbreviations is "lol," which he notes "today has a very specific meaning, but in John Muir’s time it was 'between,' because basically you have a circle between two lines.”

Charlie Kirby is one of the volunteer transcribers. She and Wurtz find themselves in a conversation about their favorite abbreviations.

“I like 'wh' myself,” says Kirby. “Which is 'which.' ”

“Yes, that’s a good one,” says Wurtz. “Or 'yo' for Yosemite.”

“'Yo!' 'Yo!' Yeah!” says Kirby.

Kirby has already transcribed one journal and is on a second. She says she knew nothing about Muir when she started.

“It’s challenging, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle,” she says. She uses the computer’s zoom feature to magnify the journal and then takes it word by word.

“You get into the groove of whatever he’s talking about and suddenly you’re not sitting in an office,” Kirby says. “You’re out in the Sierra, you’re looking at Yosemite, you’re in Tuolumne Canyon looking down at the water and he’s talking about how muddy it is because it’s flowing so fast.”

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