Reflecting on Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing, or taking work that would usually be performed by an employee and outsourcing it to the general public, did not begin with the advent of the digital age, but there is no question that the internet has made it much easier to cultural heritage institutions to launch large-scale crowdsourcing projects. In Australia, the National Library has engaged a wide public in correcting transcriptions of newspaper articles as part of its Trove project. In the UK, scholars creating scholarly editions of the work of Jeremy Bentham have involved users in transcribing Bentham’s thousands of pages of writing. In the US, the public is helping to transcribe the recovered documents of the early US War Department and correcting computer readings of historical maps.

Crowdsourcing done well has a bit of a “have your cake and eat it too” quality to it because it benefits both cultural institutions and the members of the public who volunteer their time. For cultural institutions or research projects, crowdsourcing offers a way to get work done that is either too burdensome for staff or that cannot be done well (or at all) by computers. These projects also bring attention to collections and connect participants to the work of the institution in a meaningful way. Contributors, rather than feeling exploited for all the free labor they are providing, instead tend to feel that they are engaged in work with social value that is often of personal interest. Some develop their skills through crowdsourcing and for some, working on these projects seems to become a hobby, or even an obsession. 

Recruiting the public to help is particularly valuable for well-defined, time-consuming tasks that require a human touch. Crowdsourcing is ideal for transcription projects, where contributors can create a typed transcript of a digitized handwritten document. It works well for correction projects, where members of the public can look at the work done by a computer—transcribing text or maps for example—and can correct computer errors. It also offers an excellent format for tagging projects, where users are asked to tag an object based on its content. All of this work makes digital objects more discoverable and searchable so they can be used more effectively in research and it allows editors or administrators to spend their time on tasks that require more expertise, like checking the work done by volunteers for accuracy before making it widely available in a digital collection.

Based on my (admittedly limited) time contributing to several crowdsourced projects, the aspects that seemed most important to a project’s success were:

  1. The ability to get started with only the most minimal instruction. A single page of guidelines or short video that explains the work was useful, but users will likely be discouraged if they feel they have to undergo a lengthy training in order to participate.
  2. A truly easy to use interface. In a transcription project, for example, users need to be able to magnify sections of a document, to quickly shift the position of the document, and to enter their transcription directly into a text box on the same screen as the document. Being able to save work in progress is also important in encouraging visitors to return to the site to keep working on unfinished tasks.
  3. Giving contributors the ability to have some choice about the work they undertake (which documents they want to work on, for example). From my experience, working If users cannot choose the subject of their work, then the interface would do well to make the work something like a game so the contributor will be drawn in to the work.
  4. Acknowledging the work of contributors in some way so that they feel valued and seen.


Crowdsourced projects do need to expend time and energy in making people aware of the project so they will visit the site. Most also build in some safeguards to check the work done by the public before it is considered complete.

They do not, however, need to worry too much about tailoring tasks to the interests of a broad public. In nearly every crowdsourced project, a handful of top contributors does the vast majority of the work. What crowdsourcing does remarkably well, then, is to bring together a cultural institution with members of the public who are committed to their project or who have a deep personal interest in the material. Casual contributors may come away with a better sense of a project or a deeper interest in an institution, but it is the most avid contributors who really allow crowdsourced projects to live up to their most basic goal: to outsource work that would typically be done by employees to the general public.

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