Crowdsourcing in digital libraries

by Tracy Wasserman, Head Editor, INALJ Florida

Crowdsourcing in digital libraries

Tracy WassermanLibraries of all kinds hold countless items of significant historical value that most people never see. That is, never would see, until now, with the advent of digital libraries. Efforts to bring hidden treasures to light and make them readily accessible online have resulted in hundreds of digitized library collections around the world. And guess what? You, yes YOU, can help build these collections by joining online communities engaged in transcribing and tagging the digital items in them. You could engage your interest and enthusiasm for a unique collection, and learn something, learn a lot actually, about history. Tasks traditionally performed by an employee or contractor are outsourced to group of people or community in the form of an open call, to achieve a specific goal. It’s called “crowdsourcing,” and here are examples of some of the most popular crowdsourcing achievements in digital libraries:

New York Public Library: What’s on the Menu?

The New York Public Library’s What’s on the Menu? transcription crowdsourcing project was created by NYPL Labs, in conjunction with the ongoing digitization of the Miss Frank E. Buttolph American Menu Collection, housed in the Rare Book Division of the New York Public Library. This collection of 45,000  restaurant menus, was amassed largely by one women (the indomitable Miss Frank Buttolph, librarian archivist extraordinare). Miss Buttolph donated her collection in 1899 to the NYPL, so that future generations would know what their ancestors ate, with the vision before her of students of history “who would say ‘thank you’ to my name and memory.” Well, Thank You, Miss Buttolph! The NYPL Labs crowdsourcing project aims to transcribe the dishes on all these menus as they are digitized and become available online, making them searchable dish-by-dish so we will indeed know what are ancestors were eating a century ago. Miss Buttolph would be proud.


The Smithsonian knows how to hone in on a good thing with style and flare: its Transcription Center currently hosts 31 transcription projects, from the field notes of botanical collections to the papers of the WWII Monuments Men, involving collections from eight Smithsonian museums, archives and libraries. In a call to “researchers, educators, citizen scientists and history buffs,” the Smithsonian calls us to arms, to “discover secrets hidden deep inside our collections that illuminate our history and our world.” So what are we waiting for? Let’s pick our project, and start today! Think of the worlds we will discover!

Galaxy Zoo

Speaking of discovering worlds, how would you like to go out of this world and classify galaxies? Yep, you read that right. Galaxy Zoo is a scientific research crowdsourcing project begun by researchers at various prestigious international universities, who quickly realized the task of classifying images from a million discovered galaxies would be rather mind-numbing for the lot of them on their own. So they turned to us citizen scientists. We get the opportunity to directly contribute to scientific research, while viewing the “beautiful and varied galaxies that inhabit our universe.” Within 24 hours of its launch in July of 2007, Galaxy Zoo was receiving 700,000 classifications an hour, and within a year, more than 50 million classifications had been received, contributed by more than 150,000 people. ( Let’s get on the bandwagon, shall we?

Family Search’s Obituary Digitization Project

From out of this world to worlds that have passed, how about indexing obituaries of our collective ancestors? Run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints through its Family History Center libraries, Family Search is calling on volunteers to index its collection of millions of obituaries as they become digitized, to create a “treasure trove” of unique stories valuable to online family history research. But you can discover and index much more than obituaries! Family Search runs over 100 crowdsourcing indexing projects around the world, searchable by name or language. Want to index Catholic church records in Saskatchewan, Canada from 1846 through 1934, marriages in West Cape, South Africa from 1860 to 1962, or civil registrars of birth in Manila, Philippines from 1901 to 1979? Choose your interest and bring our ancestors to life!

So show us what you can do. The above examples are just a few of the opportunities to expand your horizons, and bring a digital library to life for all the world to enjoy. Go ahead – sign up to unlock the world’s mysteries while sitting on your couch. You may be amazed at what you discover.

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