The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Embracing the Crowd
When I started working with museums in 2005, the concept of crowdsourcing was in its infancy. That year, James Surowiecki ‘s book, “The Wisdom of Crowds,” was published and there were tiny experiments in crowdsourcing occurring in the cultural heritage sector. There were hesitations and objections about the whole concept within the GLAM (gallery, library, archive, museum) community, ranging from trepidation over quality of contributions to concern over the cost of managing everyone who was let in. We were cautiously peering into the future.
In 2009, the crowd broke through to the highest levels of government. In his remarks to his senior staff and cabinet secretaries, President Obama stated:
Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that's why, as of today, I'm directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans -- scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs -- because the way to solve the problem of our time is -- the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping the policies that affect their lives.
Our equivalent of ‘president’ in the archives world, David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, took the President's statement to heart. Things were quickly changing and it was time to embrace the crowd or be left behind.
Fast forward to 2014 where crowd-sourcing projects are as ubiquitous as the crowds themselves. In the GLAM world, the crowd is tagging, transcribing, scanning, and writing Wikipedia articles. It has grown to the point that some in the GLAM community rely on the crowd to get their work done. Take the Library of Congress’ Prints and Photographs division. They became the founding member of the Flickr Commons in 2008. Since then, their staff was cut in half. They realized they had a marketing problem in that many people didn’t know about their photograph collections. After six years of participating in the Commons with a contribution of 20,000 “no known copyright restriction” images, they’ve received 60+million views, 45,000 comments, 40,000 fans, 190,000 tags, and most impressively, have updated 6000 catalog records with information from the crowd!
The results at the National Archives are no less impressive. As a result of their “scan-a-thons,” they have uploaded over 100,000 documents to the Wikimedia Commons. When they launched the transcription tool in their Citizen Archivist website, the public transcribed a staggering 20,000 pages in two weeks. They’ve noticed, as we at the Smithsonian have, that the public goes above and beyond what is asked, adding notes on page format and images they encounter in transcribing. This is a lot of volunteer hours, and it’s quality work.
We at the Smithsonian like to say that we have been crowdsourcing since 1849. Our most recent foray, the Transcription Center, quietly kicked off this year in June. With 15,242 pages available for transcription, 9,559 pages have been transcribed and reviewed (note we have included the extra step of crowd-review in our Transcription Center). An enormously dedicated group of 24 volunteers have completed between 1,035 and 6,188 transcriptions and reviews each! Our volunteers come from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Kazakhstan, New Zealand, Australia, Netherlands, Philippines, France and Belgium; people who likely wouldn’t be able to volunteer in person. They are people with training in botany, anthropology, history, and linguistics, and their work is considerate and meticulous.
The tangible results of crowdsourcing are stunning. The intangible results are as rewarding. We get to know our audiences and they, in turn, become advocates for our organizations. It is exciting to think of how these relationships will grow.