The New York Public Library Uses Crowdsourcing to Update Its Archives

In an effort to update a collection of the Rare Books Division of the New York Public Library, the Rare Books team has reached out to the vast network of crowdsourcing talent to digitize more than 40,000 menus collected in their archives since 1900. Not only will the files now be digitized, they will be added to a fully searchable database that historians, writers, and other interested parties can peruse for historically-themed beverages, meals, and language.

But crowdsourced transcription is a growing trend. Ben Brumfield examines more than a dozen crowd-transcription projects from 2010 that cover everything from the OldWeather project, which transcribes the Royal Navy’s ship’s logs from WWI to a project dedicated to transcribing the handwritten papers of Abraham Lincoln. Most of these projects are exclusively dependent on a base of enthusiasts who donate their time with fervor – with many of these projects well over 50% to completion. Some, like the Transcribe Bentham project (which engages the general public in the transcription of manuscripts by Jeremy Bentham, an 18th century philosopher and reformer), have been particularly successful at reaching out to their community. Transcribe Bentham communicates directly with the transcribers and potential transcribers through its blog and special offerings, like tickets to Bentham in the Community Evenings, etc.

Among a variety of predictions that Brumfield makes about crowdsourcing transcription, he suggests that more transcription projects will launch that have thought of creative ways to recruit and encourage a passionate volunteer base. Like so many crowd-sourced tasks, he believes that game-based tools and software will continue to be a motivator for participants.

There are many other factors, however, that could also effect a user’s desire to transcribe pages upon pages of abstract diary entries from obscure authors and the like: the sorts of technology that users will have to engage with to participate, the complexity of the catalog the information is fed into, and the importance of the pursuit. As more and more information is digitized and shared online, do you think the field of online transcription will continue to proliferate? What are some projects that you would like to see transcribed? What are some ways to evangelize this audience of online “sternographers?”

2 responses to “The New York Public Library Uses Crowdsourcing to Update Its Archives

  1. dickitt666

    this is a very good ideea. i apreciate much the american system.

    keep up the good work

  2. shperdueva

    Crowdsourcing can be a very useful way to get manuscript material that is digitized, transcribed. It is not applicable in all cases, and, speaking from the perspective of a documentary editor, it is the starting point in a longer process of review, proofreading, and annotation. For the record, the Papers of Abraham Lincoln has not been using crowd sourcing as a method. This has mistakenly become part of the dialogue about crowdsourcing as a result of a comment made by the editor in chief at the Abraham Lincoln Papers who was not satisfied with the quality of transcriptions that were outsourced to a vendor. His conclusion was that the quality obtained by in-house transcription was preferable over that obtained by outside sources, in this case a paid vendor. It had nothing to do with crowdsourcing