Sitting next to a senior leader of a European library at a IIIF event, he expressed concern that asking volunteers to work on transcribing was taking unfair advantage of free labor. My internal reaction was, “you just want to keep all the good stuff for yourself!” -- but of course I didn’t say that. I talked about meaningful volunteer work and how -- since our very first project -- many of our volunteers were homebound for reasons of health or caretaking and transcribing brought both entertainment and meaning to their lives.
Bringing meaning to people’s lives, though, is a heavy responsibility. You can’t just throw documents up and hope they get transcribed. You can, actually, but you’re reneging on the social contract that comes with setting up a crowdsourcing project. That unspoken contract says “I’m taking this seriously, so you’d better, too.”
Our neighbor Michael got a new puppy recently. Watching him “walk” the puppy for the first time was hilarious -- and frustrating to Michael. The puppy had no idea what to do! Everything was new -- the street, the leash, the idea of going in a straight line instead of whichever way he wanted… And everything was so exciting it didn’t occur to him to do “his business”.
A month later I heard cheering at the neighbor’s. “Are they having a party?”, I wondered. I peeked out my front door and noticed a dog trainer van -- they were training the puppy, and the cheering I heard was lots of positive reinforcement for what he was learning.
As our colleague Sam Blickhan says “People think crowdsourcing is getting someone else to do their homework for them, when really you’re getting entirely different homework.” Effective crowdsourcing is only possible with the guidance and engagement of archives staff. You can’t replace staff members and trained information professionals with the crowd. That just doesn’t work.
When we introduce people to crowdsourcing we show a picture of a cute puppy because we have a standing joke. Crowdsourcing is not “free as in speech” or “free as in beer”, it’s “free as in puppy”
The puppy is free, but you have to take care of it; you have to do a lot of work. Because volunteers that participate in projects don’t like being ignored. They don’t like having their work lost. They’re doing something that they feel is meaningful and engaging with you, therefore you need to make sure their work is meaningful and engage with them.
Like feeding a puppy or giving him a bath, there are tasks that are part of the care and feeding of a crowdsourcing project: recruiting volunteers, welcoming them, responding to their comments and questions, making them feel appreciated, re-engaging them with regular newsletters, holding training sessions and webinars, letting them know when a project is finished and where they’ll find their work, crediting them appropriately, and reporting their service hours. We help with as many of these as we can, but there’s so much more we can -- and should -- do to make all of these “ancillary” tasks that come with a crowdsourcing task easier. Just like a puppy brings more companionship into your life, crowdsourcing can build community into your institution’s life. You just have to do the work.