Contagious Contributions: The Rewards of Asking for Help

What happens when an organization turns to the Internet 'crowd' for help to make its online collections as accessible as possible? The Archives is several years into its crowd-sourcing initiatives: tagging photographs and solving mysteries on Flickr Commons and transcribing text-oriented materials on the Smithsonian Transcription Center. Our goals are focused on enabling people to virtually look inside these materials and apply data mining and other techniques, enriching and speeding their own work.

In just the past 18 months, over two thousand new volunteers plus an untold number of anonymous contributors have given us a big boost, and the results are remarkable. While the quality and quantity of the effort is impressive – over 300 transcription projects and hundreds more photos available to tag on the Flickr Commons, I am more excited by how I see volunteers' passion for knowledge grow, having an empowering and domino effect.

Looking for the Inside Stories

As the institutional archives documenting the Smithsonian's history of acquiring and disseminating knowledge, we hold a wide variety of both scientific and humanities oriented primary source material that reflects that diversity of the Smithsonian's activities from its earliest days over 169 years ago.

As we selected material for our digital volunteers, I expected them to engage with it, gaining insight and appreciation for the personal efforts and experiences of the individuals behind them. However, volunteers soon uncovered additional, noteworthy individuals and events buried inside those texts.

Going one step further, they began to find connections between different Archives projects, such as the professional and personal relationships between scientists and examples of their work.

Amidst all of these discoveries, the depth of access these volunteers have helped us create has enabled researchers to include these historical sources in computer-driven longitudinal studies.

Botanist Frederick Vernon Coville (1867-1937) spent most of his career at the U.S. Department of Agriculture; he was affiliated with the National Herbarium at the Smithsonian Institution, and he was instrumental in establishment of the U.S. National Arboretum. Accession 90-105: Science Service, Records, 1920s-1970s, Smithsonian Institution Archives, neg. no. SIA2008-0296.

Clinton Hart Merriam, by France Benjamin Johnston, in "The World's Work," 1903, Wikimedia Commons.

Vernon Bailey, chief field naturalist for the U.S. Bureau of Biological Survey from 1890 to 1933. National Library of Medicine, neg. no. B02147.

Florence Merriam Bailey, in "The Condor," 1904, Wikimedia Commons.

On the left: David Crockett Graham diary documenting his field work in China, Smithsonian Institution Archives, neg. no. SIA2012-8836. On the right: Bombus (Tricornibombus) atripes Smith collected by Graham during a trip to China, National Museum of Natural History, specimen no. USNMENT01005877.

Isotype of Astragalus praelongus var. ellisiae (Rydb.) Barneby ex B.L. Turner [family FABACEAE]; Collector Charlotte C. Ellis, #421; Collection Date April 1914; JSTOR Global Plants.

#WeLearnTogether: The Domino Effect

#welearntogether is a Twitter hash tag these 'volunpeers' have taken to when discussing the projects they are working on. It reflects the community culture we have striven for since the first days of our crowd-sourcing initiatives. So what's this domino effect?

On the left: David Crockett Graham diary documenting his field work in China, Smithsonian Institutio

Domino 1: Our volunpeers are using the information they have found, finding links to data held by museums, libraries, and archives at the Smithsonian and helping us to connect those resources to each other. 

Isotype of Astragalus praelongus var. ellisiae (Rydb.) Barneby ex B.L. Turner [family FABACEAE];  Co

Domino 2: The volunteers are reaching out to other organizations, and sharing what they have learned so those organizations, too, can update and enrich their own information catalogs. These include JSTOR and the United States National Herbarium.

Domino 3: Some volunteers are following these external connections to expand their transcription contributions to include other groups like the Atlas of Living Australia and Zooniverse.

In the end, the knowledge of our collections has grown, their accessibility improved, resulting in tangible benefits for today’s and tomorrow’s Smithsonian collections users. It is so rewarding to watch these volunteers’ voyages of discovery stoke a passion to discover more and fire an enthusiasm about these collections that has proven to be contagious.

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