Last week I wrote a bit about the digitisation of historical documents and how the addition of indexes, transcriptions, and metadata can turn a pile of images into a findable, searchable, valuable resource. This week I’d like to write a bit about one of the methods organisations are employing to sort through digitised documents and add this vital information: crowdsourcing.
Crowdsourcing history allows organisations to tap into a worldwide base of potential volunteers with interests in family history, military history, and so on. With an internet-enabled device (usually a computer) on which to download specific software, internet access, and a knowledge of a specific language (in the examples below, English is required, although FamilySearch is also seeking bilingual volunteers), anyone can contribute information to an index. These volunteers become known as ‘citizen historians’ and ‘citizen archivists’.
Private, government, and charitable organisations have been actively recruiting volunteers to look at the collections of sources that they have digitised, but which are not ready to be made available to the public with a search function or additional needed data. Volunteers register with a website, download software from the organisation, and then type in the desired information which they’ve read in the digitised source. This may consist of a few key items for the end result, an index, such as names, ages, and dates, or a complete transcription of a source. For a census record, for example, volunteers might be asked to type in information from every column or just a few key items that would allow future searchers to find the people and families that they are looking for.
The text entered by volunteers gets reviewed by experts from the organisation offering the documents or by volunteer arbitrators. These higher-level volunteers are experienced transcribers and indexers who have a good rating in terms of accuracy and their number of contributions to a project or database. They act as a check on the work of the citizen historians and archivists and help improve the accuracy of the transcriptions.
Why are major organisations turning to semi-anonymous volunteers to undertake the vital transcription process on their digitised collections? There’s a number of good reasons. First, by allowing people to sign up and complete transcriptions online without prior experience, these organisations benefit from tens of thousands of potential contributors. Second, by handing over the roles of transcriber and lower-level supervisor to online volunteers, organisations are saving work hours and money. Third, it may mean that more documents and collections are being digitised and becoming available to the public at a faster rate.
Looking for a way to volunteer in the historical sector? Interested in genealogy/family history? Want to improve your paleography skills (your ability to read and understand historic writing)? Joining one of these projects might just be the way to go.
This massive, free genealogical/family history site welcomes beginner indexers to join their team, providing detailed instructions and tutorials and a wide range of genealogy-related sources and projects to which to contribute. I’ve done some indexing for them as a volunteer; it was simple to get started and I enjoyed looking at records that I hadn’t worked with before.
The Smithsonian offers opportunities for the public to view and transcribe a wide range of historical sources and sources related to biodiversity. They report having had over 7000 volunteers work on more than 200,000 pages of records since beginning the project in 2013.
Choose from one of their themed missions or use their search function to find documents waiting for transcription that appeal to you and your research goals. Popular projects are related to former presidents, reports, and events of national interest in the United States.
The goal of the GMU‘s project is to transcribe approx. 45,000 documents relating to history of the War Department. The organisers also encourage researchers conducting research into the War Department to take part and contribute their transcriptions to the project for wider use.
The World Archives Project of the for-profit, subscription-based international website Ancestry asks amateur genealogists to index databases of government records and documents deemed important to family history research which will then be added to their vast collections.
ScotlandsPlaces offers registered individuals opportunities to transcribe digitised copies of handwritten documents from across Scotland that have been preserved and provided by National Records Scotland, the National Library of Scotland, and Historic Environment Scotland.
A collaboration between the National Archives (UK), Imperial War Museums, and the organisation Zooniverse, makers of online platforms that bring people together to conduct research, Operation War Diary aims to create a broader understanding of the experiences of WWI soldiers.
Staff at University of Iowa Libraries are asking for volunteers to transcribe information contained within digitised handwritten documents and photographs on a range of topics of interest to American (and particularly Iowa) history. They’re proud to have seen almost 75,000 transcribed pages so far!