Smithsonian Digital Transcription: Crowdsourcing while Relaxing

The Internet can be a wonderful place.  Knowledge, thoughts, and concepts are traded daily over the breadth of the world at speeds unheard of even 30 years ago.  The free exchange of information is one of the greatest gifts of the modern age.  Being free of the slow work of the scribe, or the drying ink of a printing press to convey data opens up projects, avenues, and goals.  Crowdsourcing is one such avenue.  Crowdsourcing, at its core, is obtaining services, ideas, and products by dispersing work amongst a large group of people.  One project using this openness and connectivity digitally is the Smithsonian Digital Volunteer Transcription Center.

Work during spare time interests me greatly.  Today, the time commitments of professional work, life, and errands seem to shred the possibility of research and historical work to atoms.  My job is not related to the history field, so any chance I get to help make history available to the public is a gift.  I stumbled upon the Smithsonian Digital Transcription project (https://transcription.si.edu) on twitter one day, and was immediately taken in by the ease of use.  The website invites volunteers to either help transcribe or review already transcribed documents.  Each document has been digitally scanned onto the site, and features image zoom tools, tips for transcribing/reviewing, a space for notes to other users, and even social media links.  I especially like the built in social media sharing features.  The project is definitely working to encourage volunteers to feel more like peers.  There is an emphasis on the public user’s work having a purpose.  Users are encouraged to think creatively, writing or reviewing in whatever manner they feel helps, as independant contributors, not typing robots.

First time users are directed to a helpful tutorial.  It explains in simple terms the goal of the project (research, searchability, engagement with primary sources).  It gives instruction on proper formatting for transcription, and how to review and make corrections.  Generally, any number of users may transcribe a project.  When one feels it is complete, they may mark it for review.  If the reviewer is satisfied, they may mark it complete, and send it for review by the Smithsonian.  Otherwise, any corrections made will reopen the project for editing, or if completed again, submit if for review by another volunteer.  The training provided is simple and to the point.  No difficulty should be feared diving in.

The projects pull topics from all over the world, from a naturalist’s personal correspondence to botanist notes from 1909 to vocabulary guides of enslaved African-Brazilans from the late 1830s.  I found the variety of topics prevents mental fatigue.  If I hit a road block with one project, I can skip over to another and start anew.

The work itself is quick and easy to come back to.  If I have to step away for a few hours, I can easily go right back to work, or find a new page that needs my attention.  Transcribing or reviewing can be done is as little a few minutes, whenever there is free time.  The flexibility of the project is liberating.  A volunteer does not have to stress out that they do not have an hour to devote to work right at the moment, they can work while they can.

Crowdsourcing projects like Smithsonian Digital Transcription allow the public to partake in historic research while watching Jeopardy.  People who might never have the time to venture to a library or archive are now able to travel to far off lands and make old thoughts through their work.  While the task can be a bit tricky (some projects require a careful eye for cursive), it is deeply rewarding.  Being able to contribute to public history, digital history, and document preservation is an excellent way to wind down a day.

 

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