Volunteers have been an integral part of the Smithsonian since the beginning. As our historian Pamela Henson likes to say, we have always relied on the kindness of strangers. Our first Secretary, Joseph Henry, coordinated a group of about 600 people across North America to send in weather data which he posted on a map in the Smithsonian’s Castle (this program eventually led to the founding of the National Weather Service.) Our second Secretary, Spencer Fullerton Baird, created a network of collecting volunteers who sent biological specimen to the Smithsonian for study and inclusion in its first U.S. National Museum.
Today, on site volunteers number almost the same as staff; 6,373 staff and 5451 volunteers. Since kicking off our first pan-Smithsonian digital volunteer website in June 2013, the Smithsonian Transcription Center, we nearly doubled our volunteer base by 4,919! The number steadily climbs and it is likely to soon outnumber our in-person volunteers, and eventually our staff.
Although digital volunteers work from all over the world, there is a sense of community amongst the volunteers through social media and the Transcription Center itself. I regularly field questions/comments from volunteers in very different time zones. It also seems like serving as a digital volunteer yields the same sense of purpose as our in-person volunteers:
“…I was also keen because anything I do helps to open up access to the Smithsonian collections and this results in improved connections and knowledge for everyone. Scientists, citizen scientists, historians, school children, from anywhere with an internet connection. The fact that anyone can view the transcriptions and that there is open access to the transcribed data was a very important factor in me donating my time,” Transcription Center Volunteer
“ What drives me, in particular, is the preservation of the study of astronomy. There were countless hours spent in freezing observatories with eyes glued to instruments and eyepieces hoping for good tracking and sky conditions. All during this was the painstaking logging of notes - figures and frustrations alike. This must never be lost, for it shows determination, drive, perseverance . . . and a great deal of hope. Thank you for the opportunity,” Transcription Center Volunteer
From working our information desks to transcribing primary source documents, our volunteers are large contributors in making the Smithsonian all that it is. It is delightful to think that people all over the world now have more opportunities to contribute from wherever they are. Below is a list of Smithsonian projects that rely on the kindness of strangers (a.k.a. crowdsourcing projects) that I compiled back in September 2014. If one appeals to you, come aboard and help us to achieve our mission of increasing and diffusing knowledge. And please know that we very much appreciate your work, not just during Volunteer Appreciation Month, but throughout the year. Please listen to a message of thanks from our Director, Anne Van Camp.
- Digital Volunteer Certificate, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Baird’s Network, Bigger Picture Blog
- Volunteer for the Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Growing to a Community of Volunpeers: Communication & Discovery, Bigger Picture Blog
Volunteer now for any of these Smithsonian projects!
- Access American Stories – Crowdsourcing audio descriptions of exhibition for accessibility
- Agriculture Innovation and Heritage Archive – Crowdsourcing oral histories related to agriculture
- Biodiversity Heritage Library Machine Tagging – Crowdsourcing machine tags for inclusion in the Encyclopedia of Life
- Community of Gardens – Crowdsourcing oral histories and media related to community gardens
- eMammal – Crowdsourcing camera-trap images to survey of wildlife
- Global Treebanding Project – Crowdsourcing scientific data about tree biomass and the impact of climate change
- Leafsnap – Crowdsourcing tree data set for mobile app
- Our American Journey - Crowdsourcing oral histories of American experience
- People and the Post: A DigitalMemory Book - Crowdsourcing oral histories from postal workers
- Smithsonian Transcription Center– Crowdsourcing transcriptions of historic documents and collection records
- Stories from Main Street – Crowdsourcing oral histories of rural America
- Wikipedia edit-a-thons - Crowdsourcing Wikipedia Articles about Smithsonian collections and resources
- Will to Adorn - Crowdsourcing oral histories about dress