By the People: Crowdsourcing at the Library of Congress

Launched in the fall of 2018, By the People (crowd.loc.gov) is an initiative of the Library of Congress to recruit and put to work online volunteers to transcribe their many online resources. As of February 2, 2021, over 270,000 pages have been transcribed by online volunteers, with over 22,000 registered user accounts to the page. Beyond getting transcriptions to their collection, By the People seeks to build off previous crowdsourcing projects to increase access to LOC holdings and take part in preserving our nation’s history.

Home page of the By The People website. crowd.loc.gov

The LOC provides detailed instructions for volunteers, new and old, to read and refer to as they work on their transcriptions. The page asks volunteers to review the guidelines and then explore the campaigns to find a documents they are interested in transcribing. Users can choose whether or not to create an account. Having an account is not required to start transcribing, but in order to participate in the review process, users must create a free account using their email address.

Page showing current campaigns

To get started transcribing, volunteers choose a campaign and are brought to a page displaying the current campaigns. Currently there are 11 campaigns active ranging through a variety of topics, including campaigns on Woman Suffrage, Walt Whitman, the Civil War, and the 19th-Century Occult Revival. With such a variety of topics, volunteers are sure to find something that interests them. While most documents are in English, the LOC is also running a Spanish-language campaign (entitled Herencia: Centuries of Spanish Legal Documents) which allows Spanish speakers to participate in the program as well. For today, I’m going to take a look at the Suffrage: Women Fight for the Vote campaign.

Clicking on the campaign pulls up a webpage giving a brief summary of the campaign. The page describes what kinds of documents are in the collection and why transcribing the documents will benefit researchers and the LOC. Below the description is a progress bar, showing how much of the collection has been started, what is in progress, what needs reviewed, and how much is completed. I can then pick from a list which “project” I would like to work on. After selecting a project, a similar screen pulls up a selection of documents, and then specific pages to work on.

Transcription interface

The website allows multiple people to transcribe a single document. Users can start transcribing, save their progress, and even leave the rest of a page for others to transcribe. Another user can pick up where they left off. Users can zoom in and out on scans to make cursive more legible and use their mouse to move the document around. To the right of the scanned document, transcribers enter the text word by word, preserving each nuance of the writing, including spacing, punctuation, and spelling.

Transcription Review interface

Once a document is ready for review, volunteers check the transcription for accuracy and add relevant tags to the document for search engines. The example above shows a letter which has been transcribed by another user. When reviewing, users review the transcribed text alongside the original. If they find an inaccuracy in the text, they can choose to edit the text. If it is all correct, they can then accept the transcription. Along the bottom of the screen, seen in the above picture, reviewers can also add relevant tags to be used as keywords in the LOC search engine. Once the transcription is reviewed, it can no longer be edited. Users can still view the document within the campaign but it is no longer editable.

Before the transcription appears on the Library of Congress website, however, it must be given final approval by LOC staff. Until then, the transcribed document continues to be available on the We the People website.

Overall, I found the We the People website to be an excellent example of crowdsourcing done well. One concern some may have with online crowd sources is exploiting free help without due compensation or benefits to the volunteer. In my opinion, the LOC successfully avoids this issue through their creative framing of the project. By framing it as a project by the people, for the people, the LOC frames volunteering as a patriotic act which volunteers can feel connected to. This campaign allows people from all over the nation to feel connected in some way to the LOC through online connections. With the huge number of documents cared for by the LOC, just about anyone is sure to be able to find a campaign that resonates with them.

What do you think? Is crowdsourcing a viable option for most museums and archives? Do you agree that the LOC is able to avoid being exploitative of online volunteers?

2 Replies to “By the People: Crowdsourcing at the Library of Congress”

  1. Emily, I think this example of crowdsourcing at the LOC is a really compelling one because of the way the LOC frames it for the participant. Like you said, the creative framing means that anyone could participate, but it is almost encouraged that you participate in a campaign you feel especially connected to or where you feel as if you are contributing in a patriotic act. For your questions, I definitely think that crowdsourcing is a viable option for museums and archives, but like you said, these institutions can also run into problems with exploitation and intellectual labor debates. While I do think that the LOC example works well, I can also see why someone would feel as if they should be rewarded or compensated somehow for their work.

  2. Hello, I found this to be an interesting blog post. Before reading this I had no knowledge about crowdsourcing at the library of congress and this intrigued me. I also thought the We the People website to be a good example too. All around I enjoyed this post.

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