Letters to Orson Welles draw an (online) crowd

May 15, 2020

In just three days, a group of volunteers from around the world transcribed more than 1300 letters (almost 2000 pages), mostly handwritten, sent to Orson Welles and his network CBS in the wake of the infamous 1938 War of Worlds radio broadcast. 

The letters, which are part of the U-M Library’s extensive Orson Welles archive, offer blame, praise, and personal accounts of what happened during and after the broadcast. Taken together, they document a public response that was much more complex than the media narrative, which held that the realistic broadcast of the story of a Martian invasion caused widespread panic.

The digitized letters and their transcriptions will soon be available to the public along with lesson plans created in collaboration with teachers and schools in southeast Michigan, aimed at instructors and students in middle school, high school, and community college.

The transcription project was the work of Shapiro Design Lab Director Justin Schell, Film Studies Librarian Phil Hallman, and Ph.D. candidate Vincent Longo, who hosted the project on the citizen-science platform Zooniverse. They launched the effort earlier than planned, hoping to enlist participants staying home in the midst of the pandemic, and especially students in need of remote projects. 

The response from the public was overwhelming, according to Schell. “After the rapid completion of the handwritten letters, we decided to add the typewritten ones.” Volunteers transcribed letters line by line, and at least five volunteers viewed each page to ensure accuracy. In public comments, one volunteer described the project as “the most fun of all the Zooniverse projects I’ve done” and another was thrilled “to be able to read comments and hear the emotions...of actual listeners of the actual event.”

The letters are housed in the Special Collection Research Center in the University of Michigan Library, and are part of the Screen Arts Mavericks & Makers collection. The library’s Orson Welles collection is the most extensive and comprehensive in the world.

Working on a research project that could benefit from the online participation of citizen scientists? Contact Justin Schell at jmschell@umich.edu.


by Danielle Colburn

War of the Worlds radio broadcast; from the Orson Welles Archive, Special Collections Research Center, U-M Library


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