Crowdsourcing Transcription: A Worthy Endeavor

This week in Digital History was all about crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing! One of my favorite topics. This past fall, as an intern with the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage,  I did a lot of work with the Smithsonian Transcription Center. I was mostly approving transcriptions that volunteers had made of audio materials, but I also did plenty of looking around the user side of the site and transcribing documents. You can read all about my experience with that internship and my time in D.C. at this blog site.

Rather than looking at the Transcription Center again since I’m already so familiar with it, I decided to volunteer with the Library of Congress’s By the People transcription site. For this post, I’ll mostly focus on my experience with By the People,  but I’ll also compare it to features of the Transcription Center when I think it’s necessary.

By the People is very easy to jump right into. Their project categories are clearly defined, and volunteers have a good idea of the kinds of material they’ll be transcribing just by the project titles. I spent about 2 hours reviewing transcriptions from the Alan Lomax campaign, mainly in the Cajun documents projects. From the title of the projects, I knew I’d be looking at manuscripts from Cajun communities from Alan Lomax’s notes, and that’s exactly what I got. My one big critique of the user interface of the site is that the status indication colors of documents (not started, transcribed, needs review, etc.) are all shades of blue that I could not distinguish just by looking at them. I had some false starts getting excited about projects that were already completed. This is in contrast with the Smithsonian Transcription Center, who uses contrasting colors (white, red, yellow, green) to easily distinguish how far along in the transcription process pages are.

One of my favorite part of both of these transcription sites is that they track individual volunteers’ progress. Throughout my internship last fall, I loved periodically watching my number of reviewed and approved projects climb higher. By the People has the same tracking feature, but it does provide less detail than the Transcription Center. For example, By the People does not explicitly separate out your number of transcribed pages versus reviewed pages the way the Transcription Center does. Still, tracking volunteers’ progress is an important way for volunteers to feel like they’re making a difference. The higher their number of pages get, the easier it is to feel like they’re making a decent contribution to the goals of the organization; at least, that’s how it feels to me.

I’m extremely excited that so many organizations are recognizing the potential and importance of having online transcriptions sites. For many of these institutions, people don’t have the opportunity to visit and see their collections often, if at all. Having access to these collections online lets more people interact with the collections than ever before. Additionally, these volunteers are contributing to the important work of making these materials accessible for all, including those with vision and hearing impairments. Even the sense of community developed among volunteers is enough of a benefit to make these sites worth it. I think that crowdsourced transcription sites, and the volunteers who participate in them, are extremely significant for gaining access and interest in collections.

Know of other transcription sites you think I’d be interested in? Leave a link in the comments! I’d be happy to take a look at other projects.


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