Experience Crowdsourcing

This week we explored the great realm of crowdsourcing! Crowdsourcing is when a project is opened to a broader circle of people, like members of a specific network or even the entire world, so that they can contribute to the project.

To experience crowdsourcing first hand, my peers and I were tasked with working on a crowdsourcing project ourselves. Many of us chose to use the Library of Congress’ website By the People to do this because the entire site is geared toward a massive project powered by the public.

The goal of By the People is to get the public involved in history by enlisting interested individuals to transcribe, review, and tag documents in an effort to make them searchable texts. This makes them more than images, allowing people to quickly search through documents for specific instances of words and phrases that would have taken laborious reading to find previously.

By the People has over a dozen different “campaigns” to choose from. Each campaign is centered around a specific person, place, event, or collection of documents. Personally, I chose to work on the Walt Whitman at 200 campaign. I’ve heard so much about him and been exposed to some of his work, so I felt it would be interesting to dive in a bit further.

All of the transcription work on the Walt Whitman campaign was complete, which left me with the task of reviewing others’ transcription work. What’s interesting about this is that I discovered you don’t have to be a registered contributor to transcribe, but you do if you want to review and submit the final product.

At first I thought this was odd. Why not make everyone register? Why make them register at all? Then I realized the genius of it. The public ability to transcribe allows anyone to contribute without naming themselves, which could pull in more people. However, reviewing and submitting the transcriptions requires a degree of accountability, which is where registration comes in. If a contributor registers, this may make them feel more responsibility for their work and keep them accountable for the accuracy and quality of the transcriptions they are reviewing.

Once I had that revelation and registered with By the People, I set out to work.

Because all of the transcription work was done, I ended up reviewing the transcription efforts of others. It felt a bit pointless at first, but then I started picking up error after error and I realized how important it is to double and triple check work like this.

That point got reinforced when I submitted some edits to another’s transcription and it notified me that another reviewer would have to come look at it. By the People ensures that each piece is adequately looked over before its submitted by having a battery of volunteers write, edit, review, and submit the work. It may seems tedious and convoluted, but I think that it’s a genius way to ensure quality.

Overall, I was really happy with my experience working on the Walt Whitman project. I felt like I made a difference and I actually enjoyed the work. Now, not everyone is a nerd who likes editing, but people fascinated by history, historical documents, and writing like me get a kick out of it.

What really impressed me was the work interface. When you click to enter a campaign it first shows you the different collections available to work with, and each collection has a small color-coded bar below it that indicates what work needs to be done. Once you enter a collection, you find a whole slough of documents to look at, each one also with a color-coded bar that shows what needs to be done. Click on a document and poof! your screen splits in two, one side the scanned document page and the other a white text box that the transcription is typed in. It’s really a gorgeous and intuitive process.

Based on this experience and what we’ve read about crowdsourcing (links to those articles below), I can see how making a project available to the public is both extremely difficult and extremely beneficial.

It’s difficult because you have to set up the website, the interface, figure out how you want contributors to interact, make sure the work is quality, get the word out, and so much more. But it also really pays off because it gets people involved in collections in a way not possible by just looking at them. When you put in this work you’re actually reading the document, you’re interacting with it, and you feel tied to it because of the work you put into it. It’s really a revolutionary way to experience history.

Articles on Crowdsourcing:

Tips for digital participation, engagement and crowdsourcing in museums

Crowdsourcing for Historians

More Crowdsourced Scholarship: Citizen History

Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage: The Objectives Are Upside Down

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