By the People: Crowdsourcing at the Library of Congress

Launched in the fall of 2018, By the People ( 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.

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?

Intro: Emily Lefeber

Hello everyone! My name is Emily– I’m a first year in the Public History MA program. I grew up in a small town in western Iowa, where I’ve lived most of my life. For my undergraduate, I attended the University of Iowa in Iowa City, Iowa. I studied History and Political Science during my undergrad, along with earning a Museum Studies certificate. During my undergrad I worked at several museums, including the on-campus museums where I ran the children’s programming for ages 2 – 10. For my undergrad honors thesis, I studied the League of Women Voters of Iowa and their activities related to defining citizenship after between 1920 and 1940. My research interests are women’s history broadly, but also looking at intersectional identities and structures of power. Like in my honors thesis, I continue to be interested in theories of citizenship and political history.

I’m currently working as a Teaching Assistant with the AU Department of Critical Race, Gender and Culture with Professor Irene Calis for Gender, Politics, and Power class. It’s been a great experience so far. I’m also working as a Substitute Teacher at a handful of districts near my home here in Iowa. I substitute teach at any level, though my favorite is middle school.

I’ve always been interested in history and education. I actually started my undergraduate with the plan to apply to the UI College of Education to be a history teacher, but ended up decided to go towards museums instead. Public History seemed like a natural continuance of these interests, one which could have broader application that earning a masters in Museum Studies. In my future, I hope to work in programming, or outreach, or maybe exhibitions. One thing I know for sure is that I want to make things that will help people learn in creative and engaging ways. I’m looking forward to learning skills in this class that will help me do that.

Outside of work and school, I love to play Nintendo games (Animal Crossing New Horizons anyone?) or Stardew Valley. I’m also a sucker for a bad period drama — currently watching Reign and just finished Bridgerton. I love a quiet day at home with my fiancé, Alex, and my cat, Sherlock. Once restrictions are lifted, I look forward to visiting museums again and moving to DC.