A friend of mine mentioned to me that her father had begun some work on a project run by an American University which uses crowdsourcing technology to help transcribe their collection of Civil War period letters and diaries by publishing digitised images of the letters online and allowing members of the public to transcribe them remotely and upload their work.
I was interested to know how he had got involved in this type of project and why he had chosen this particular one. He told me that he had read an article in the Sunday Times which talked about academics using crowdsourcing technology to help with research projects. The article featured quite a few examples but he was particularly interested in a transcription-based project and with a bit of internet searching found this excellent project run by the University of Iowa which aims to transcribe and publish their collections of (American) Civil War letters.
He had chosen this site because the subject matter was interesting, the instructions were clear and easy to follow and there was still plenty to get his teeth into (by contrast the otherwise excellent Old Weather project is nearly complete).
We do well to listen to the voice of our users. I had asked whether or not he had considered visiting an archives office to volunteer; he said:
“No, I had always thought that an archives office was run by professionals who would not welcome the idea of amateurs muscling in.
But this is where crowdsourcing is, or could be, a great help. You would probably have more volunteers than you could ever find office space for; they work from the comfort of their own home, admittedly at their own whim & pace, but you do not have to provide them with a work space, heating, lighting, drinks, food, insurance, etc.,etc.
If you think I’m exaggerating re the number of possible volunteers, according to the S.T. article, Oxford University had images of a million galaxies from the Hubble telescope. They asked for help in categorising them via a site on t’interweb. At the end of the first day (Day!), they were getting 70,000 classifications an hour (Hour!) – and this after one lonely student had done 50,000 in a WEEK, and vowed never to do it again. They all have to be checked of course, but that’s where the professionals come in. Let the public do the grunt stuff, for free, leaving the professionals to concentrate on the important stuff.
It’s not just retired people like me either, there are those who contribute after their day job, in the evenings & at weekends, when the office would normally be shut.”
This is all food for thought indeed. It started for me as a general interest in developments of crowdsourcing technologies for archives but I’ve had such interest from friends and colleagues I am beginning to consider seriously the possibilities of setting up a similar project. And indeed one of my colleagues has signed up for a transcription project. My friendly informant had said that he might have liked to transcribe English Civil War documents rather than American, but as yet most of these projects are US-based. Well, Birmingham Archives & Heritage have just such a collection – 29 English (!) Civil War letters from aWest Midlands family just waiting for a transcriber to get their (virtual) hands on them…