Crowdsourcing as Community Empowerment

A few weeks ago I came across The Library of Virginia’s Making History transcription project. Anyone with an internet connection can view digitized primary source documents from nineteenth-century African-American freedom suits to letters penned by Patrick Henry and transcribe them for public viewing. The project provides both a digital version of the document and the plain text box side by side. The user-interface is easy to navigate, as the project is mainly interested in extracting the plain text for searching purposes. Other users can review the finished transcriptions, then the library staff downloads them to the digital collections. The project description states that crowdsourcing “empowers communities to make their own history” and that this cultural institution “supports this empowerment by inviting the public to be our partners in making our collections more visible and more accessible.” The volunteer’s engagement with the sources has as much weight, if not more, than the end result of better access to the documents.

The “Transcription Maximized; expense minimized? Crowdsourcing and editing The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham article from the Transcribe Bentham project seems to base a lot of weight in the success of the project on the cost and time of producing quality, transcribed documents. While this is an important factor in discussing and evaluating digitization projects, a more important factor is whether or not the project involved the public in a meaningful way. The authors state that only 259 volunteers did any actual transcribing out of the 1207 who registered, but that is significantly more people who engaged with the history than just the two full-time staff members of the project. The authors state that this 21% participation partly resulted in the complexity of the text encoding the project initially required of its users. The transcription tool, which would eventually provide TEI XML encoding to the documents, hindered some of the voluntary contributions.

In his blog post, “Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage,” digital scholar Trevor Owens states that “at its best, crowdsourcing is not about getting someone to do work for you, it is about offering your users the opportunity to participate in public memory.” I agree with this statement that public, volunteer-based projects conducted digitally through cultural institutions is a great source for community engagement with history. A lot of the focus in these projects is the end result of better access to these important historical documents, available online in one digital repository. People from seasoned scholars to young students in history can then engage with the same primary sources across cities and countries.

Yet, the digitization of the sources themselves by a community of volunteers results in engagement with the sources on another level. As Owens stated, instead of merely reading the texts, manipulating the data, and analyzing their historical meaning, the voluntary, digital transcription allows the user to contribute to the furthering of scholarship and to “participate in public memory” by creating history. The tools involved in such projects are important, as they can deter possible contributors. The tools provided need to support the democratized environment that these community engagement projects present and depend upon.