This is a transcript of my talk at the Society of Southwestern Archivists 2013 Annual Meeting.
[Update 2013-05-28: The audio for the talk may be downloaded as an MP3.]
This talk is about choosing a crowdsourced transcription platform, but
"choosing" means a couple of things. "Choosing" means which, and
"choosing" can mean whether-- should you do this at all?. I'd
like to address the last and give a little background on crowdsourcing
and transcription before I go into any kind of discussion of tool
So the first question is, why transcribe? Because, after all,
there are a lot of different crowdsourcing projects that are not
transcription. You can do georectification. There are a lot of people
doing tagging. After I'm done talking, Micah Erwin is going to give a
presentation on his pretty amazing work doing crowdsourced
identification of items within their collection. So why transcribe?
One reason to transcribe, is that many of us face a problem. Which is
that if you have scanned documents, you have a problem:
Now what? The fundamental problem with this is that nobody's
going to read it. Nobody's going to read this, because nobody's going
to find it. Because Google cannot index handwritten materials. These
are pixels; these aren't data -- they aren't words to search engines.
So all the serendipity that you get in the Internet age from search
engines is not useful to you. Once you get these transcribed, you get
the opportunity to connect with people who find you by searching for,
say, their own name, and discover that you have material that contains
their great-grandfather, who they're named after.
One of my most active
volunteers is transcribing a diary that was written by someone he's not related to. He found out about the project because he is named after
the diarist's mailman.
Well, one argument is that it's free labor! You're getting people to do your work for you! This is a very powerful argument, and many of you may find it a very useful argument with your management. It may even be an argument for putting material online that you wouldn't otherwise.
Now, I'm an open source developer, and in the open source world we tend to differentiate between "free as in beer" or "free as in speech".
puppy is free, but you have to take care of it; you have to do a lot of work. Because volunteers that are participating in these things 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.
So if free labor isn't the reason for crowdsourcing, why do a crowdsourcing project?
"Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage: The Objectives are Upside Down", in which he looked at the experience of volunteers participating in these crowdsourcing projects. And he says that fundamentally, this isn't about getting free labor from the public. This is about offering people a brand new and deeper way to interact with your collections: getting them to produce knowledge. Getting them to engage more deeply with the material you put online more deeply than just a consumer experience of scanning through things.
North American Bird Phenology Program is a crowdsourcing project that is inviting the public to transcribe bird observation cards that were made by amateur bird watchers a hundred years ago, over the course of about seventy years.
Now, I tried this project out because I'm interested in transcription tools. I'm not interested in birds. But as I was going through marking up these observations cards from these different observers, I'm not really quite sitting at my computer anymore -- I'm deeply immersed within the documents.
So you have this opportunity to engage people very deeply -- to immerse them in your materials by offering them this kind of way of participating.
One of the examples that I like to use was a collaboration between me and Kathryn Stallard at Southwestern University--raise your hand, please Kathryn--in which she put online a diary of the Mexican-American War. One volunteer--before we had even announced the project--went online and transcribed the entire diary. But he didn't just transcribe it--he didn't just type what he saw. He went back and made multiple revisions. He corrected things. He identified names of materials and locations and battles. He did research on the life histories of the people who were mentioned there.
This is not a consumer experience -- it's a way of pulling people into your materials. And yes, Kathryn did get a transcript out of the results. But I'm not sure that that was more valuable than the experience that Scott Patrick got going through transcribing, researching, and immersing himself within this diary of this Texan soldier.
Paul Flemons at the Atlas of Living Australia--the Australia Museum--describes it this way: Fundamentally, by engaging the public in digitizing their collections, they're educating the public and satisfying that part of their mission. They are providing increased access to their collections that they would not have, again, with just images. But most importantly, they're building an advocacy network for their collections, for their institution, for their discipline.
I'm not sure--this is all very new--but we're exploring this. I'm working with an archives that possesses a popular author's drafts, and they're starting a crowdsourced transcription project. Part of what we're trying to do with that is linking the transcription and the transcripts to a donation campaign that is designated for digitizing more of their material.
So, we don't know--I'd love to come back next year and tell you how it worked out--but I'm really interested to see if we can create a virtuous cycle among digitization, crowdsourcing, fundraising that funds digitization, and on back. I would love to see this [succeed].
the two that I've been building.
There are a lot of other factors here, but what I really want to drive home is that there are fits between particular materials and particular tools, because there is no "one size fits all" tool for transcription.
How long is the project going to last? Traditionally, crowdsourcing projects work well with the sorts of organic institutions that most people here [represent]. They work more poorly where they are, say, funded by a one-year grant -- where after a year of building up a community and working on the material, suddenly it's pencils down; lights off!
I was talking to an archivist at a library in Belgium last month who had a set of medieval manuscripts and wanted to use T-PEN, a tool which was built specifically for medieval manuscripts. She knew all about it; she loved it. But her material was in Omeka; the tool didn't work with Omeka; so she was going to use Scripto. Which is a great tool, but it just supports plain text transcripts, which isn't really suited for the material. She knew that, but her material was here [gestures], so that was directing her decision.
I think that's a shame, but it's unfortunately an important factor. People don't want to have to set up multiple systems. If you have all your material in ContentDM, you don't really want step one [of a crowdsourcing project] to be get it all back out again.
So rather than going through the tools, I want to direct you to a Google document which has been contributed to by about twenty-four people who have added their own projects, explaining whether their tools support TEI or EAD, whether they support mark-up that's semantic or genetic, what their platforms are, what their rates are -- things like that.
TranscriptionToolGDoc is something I recommend. I love having conversations about this, so send me email and we'll brainstorm about projects.