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People-Powered Research Enables Large Scale Projects

by on August 30, 2016

Many of us are familiar with the concept of crowdfunding. Companies like Kickstarter allow anyone the opportunity to solicit funds by posting a proposal online and inviting others to donate money to support the idea. Tens of thousands of people have contributed to the creation of new technology, music, software programs. Even canceled-but-beloved television shows like Reading Rainbow have been reborn thanks to the efforts of Kickstarter campaigns.

Perhaps not as common is the concept of crowdsourcing research. Though it operates on a model similar to crowdfunding; instead of providing financial assistance, participants contribute their time and knowledge to help foster discussion and verify findings. When the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif., acquired over sixteen thousand Civil War telegrams between Abraham Lincoln, his Cabinet, and the Union Army—over one-third of which was written in code—they turned to crowdsourcing research to help make the collection available to the public.[1] Huntington is working in collaboration with Zooniverse, a platform that provides “people-powered research”[2] to places like Huntington that wish to engage in large scale projects that would not be possible without the participation a huge number of people.

The Huntington Library originally thought to simply scan the ledgers and codebooks and make them available online with a traditional finding aid. But they soon determined that they needed more “points of access” for the people searching the collection.[3] Through Zooniverse, Huntington called on “citizen archivists” to help decipher and transcribe the telegrams.[4] “We have the collection organized and archived in the traditional manner, the finding aid is here, but now we will be able to place the papers online with transcriptions that will make it accessible to so many more,” says Mario Einaudi, the Kemble Digital Projects librarian at Huntington, “Truly wonderful.”[5] A project of this scale can be a long process. Each individual “subject” or page from the collection will be viewed by multiple transcribers before being added to the collection.

“For a subject to be retired, pulled from the transcription queue, it needs to have been transcribed ten times.” Einaudi confirms, “So ten separate citizen archivists have been the given the page to transcribe, transcribed it, and marked it done. Those ten transcriptions are run through an algorithm, compared, and the consensus copy built. If the ten volunteers agreed with each other, say 95 percent of the time, then the page is transcribed. If there is a lower agreement rate, then the subject and the consensus transcription will be sent to human editors for review. [The process] is fascinating and really shows the power of crowdsourcing.”[6]

While this is the Huntington’s first foray into crowdsourcing, Einaudi is hopeful that the library may be able to use the model to benefit other parts of its collection in the future. Its success may also pave the way for other libraries, both public and academic, to make use of crowdsourcing research as a valuable way to involve/include patrons in building and maintaining the very collections they use. Interested in contributing to Huntington’s project? See its Zooniverse website, take a brief tutorial, and get to work!

[1]Huntington Announces Launch of Crowdsourcing Project to Transcribe, Decode U.S. Civil War Telegrams,” press release by The Huntington, June 21, 2016.
[2]What is the Zooniverse,” About, Zooniverse, date.
[3] Mario Einaudi, Kemble Digital Projects librarian at Huntington, in an e-mail Interview with the author, August 12, 2016.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.

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