So, I'm working on a project for my 8th Grade American History students and I need to transcribe some Civil War-era medical records.

(I'll explain this project in depth soon, but for the time being, all you really need to know is that I need to decipher medium-quality photocopies of 100 year-old, hand-written, badly-spelled legal documents that use obsolete medical jargon. Yes. I really know how to live, don't I?)

Anyway, about ten minutes after school the other afternoon, I was neck-deep in this record of a Civil War vet with at truly awe-inspiring injury to his face and one of his testicles (again, don't ask...) when I suddenly completely lost track of what I was doing and all the writing suddenly dissolved into an incomprehensible mass of squiggles. My brain had called it a day.

I had a sudden moment of inspiration. (I like to think that mathematically, I was due.) 

I set up our school's document camera, which is stored in my classroom, and projected Private Ouch's medical record on the screen at the front of my classroom.

I used the telephone in my classroom to make a school-wide announcement over the intercom:

"Um... If there is anyone in the building who is really good at reading bad handwriting, could you come to Mr Fladd's room for a few minutes to do me a big favor?"

(I didn't say, "That will be all, Citizens; return to your business," but I wanted to.)

Anyway, over the next few minutes, five curious teachers from various corners of the building wandered into my classroom and got sucked into this weird and gruesome puzzle I had projected on my wall.

"Does that say 'rheumatic' or 'dramatic'?"

"I think it's 'rheumatic' - look how he makes his Rs over here."

"Is that, 'files' or 'tiles'?"

"I'm pretty sure it's 'piles'."

Me: "Would it help if I put a negative image up there - white-on-black?"

Them: "You can DO that?!"

I pressed the button on the document camera that toggles the onscreen image from color to black-and-white (which look the same when you're looking at a black-and-white photocopy to begin with) to negative image.

I got something that looked like this. (See image on left.)

My transcriptionists were wicked impressed. (Sorry, in times of excitement, I tend to fall back on New England-isms.)

So the upshot of all this is:

Six of us were able to transcribe this almost illegible document in about twenty minutes using a technique called "crowd-sourcing" Most of the people who were in the room are usually twitchy around technology and distrustful of any piece of equipment more complicated than a photocopier.

And yet...

And yet, each of them left my room with my sincere thanks and with a thoughtful look on her face.

There is some sort of lesson to be learned from this...