Defining Crowdsourcing

Perhaps the most obvious, yet thought-provoking article we had to read this week was Trever Owen’s The Crowd and The Library. Owens takes a closer look at the definition of “crowdsourcing” and how the business-deviated term doesn’t quite fit in the area of cultural heritage organizations or historical institutes. He argues that those who involve themselves in crowdsourcing are volunteers or amateurs, wanting to contribute to the public good of learning and understanding history, and should be treated as such. He states, “In cultural heritage we have clear values and missions and we are in an opportune position to invite the public to participate.” My chosen crowdsourcing practicum did just that. I chose to participate in a crowdsourcing project through the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s Chronicling Illinois webpage.

In order to at least start tackling the massive transcription process, the ALPLM decided to use crowdsourcing to allow interested history enthusiasts to participate in the project. The ALPLM already possesses about a hundred volunteers to help run the library and museum on a daily basis. This includes dedicated volunteers who help transcribe digitized Abraham Lincoln papers, alongside the editors at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln in the library. But the scope of documents at the Library extends much further than just Abraham Lincoln papers. After receiving funding to digitize almost every document the Presidential Library has in its collection, including the massive collections belonging to the former Illinois State Historical Library, their Center for Digital Initiatives (CDI) has over twenty-thousand documents to transcribe. This is the first step to make each page fully text searchable. The now digitized collection contains a large amount of the Illinois Governor Richard Yates, who was president during the Civil War. The daily correspondence he received during the popular time period for American history enthusiasts especially made the notion of opening the door to volunteers outside the physical library and museum building attainable and attractive.

Although not every digitized document deals with Governor Yates, I was among the lucky ones to transcribe a letter written by an injured Illinois soldier to the Civil War Illinois Governor, asking him to visit his Illinois hometown. The letter itself was a page long, yet demonstrated the benefits of participating in this transcription crowdsourcing project. Transcribing documents is beneficial for both the transcriber, like me, and the public as a whole. For me, transcribing is almost addictive. I absolutely love the puzzle of deciphering a code- in this case, the puzzle is trying to figure out the historical context of the letter, the handwriting of the writer, and the rhetoric of the nineteenth century writer. Although this can be extremely challenging to first time crowdsourcing transcribers, the more they participate, the more likely they will find transcribing and breaking the “code” easier. Chronicling Illinois is powered by Omeka. While I have not the greatest experiences with Omeka myself, the platform allows online browsers to look and see the progress of the transcription process. There is an actual graph that shows the percentage of how much has been transcribed and how many transcriptions are left to complete. So far, they have completed 22%. I really think this visual of completion makes it rewarding for those who decide to participate in this crowdsourcing project.

This project brings up a few concerns. I did not find my transcription on the site, although they said it should be up, but it’s Omeka, so it didn’t surprise me. I truly question the reliability of internet-based projects, as the technology is not always reliable. I also feel that the volunteers that dedicate their time to completing a transcription should be recognized for their hard work. Naturally not all are really deeply engaged, but the majority probably are dedicated. This is again exactly what Trever Owens brings up in his article. But nevertheless, crowdsourcing, like transcribing for Chronicling Illinois, is “Not only for improving and enhancing data related to cultural heritage collections, but [is] also as a way for deep engagement with the public.” So overall the project is successful. (quote comes from Owens article).


Wisconsin native- Go Pack Go! Tennis player. Aspiring Public Historian.

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