Daily Archives: June 29, 2011

Crowdsourcing – A New 21st Century Library Skill

In a June 20 article in The Atlantic, “What Big Media Can Learn From the New York Public Library”, Senior Editor Alexis Madrigal reviewed the New York Public Library’s evolution, writing;

The library isn’t floundering. Rather, it’s flourishing, putting out some of the most innovative online projects in the country. On the stuff you can measure — library visitors, website visitors, digital gallery images viewed — the numbers are up across the board compared with five years ago. On the stuff you can’t, like conceptual leadership, the NYPL is killing it.

The library clearly has reevaluated its role within the Internet information ecosystem and found a set of new identities. Let’s start from here: One, the New York Public Library is a social network with three million active users and two, the New York Public Library is a media outfit.

The library still lends books, but over the past year, the NYPL has established itself as a beacon in the carcass-strewn content landscape with smart e-publications, crowdsourcing projects, and an overall digital strategy that shows a far greater understanding of the power of the Internet than most traditional media companies show.

Everywhere you look within the New York Public Library, it’s clear that the institution has realized that its mission has changed. It’s no longer only a place where people take out books and scholars dig through archives. The library has become a social network with physical and digital nodes.

That’s probably not news to many who have their head up and looking around for ideas and success stories from libraries. What struck me most about this article was the casual use of the term ‘crowdsourcing’, as if it is one in common use today. Actually, it isn’t that common among libraries – yet – and you’ll even have to Add ‘crowdsourcing’ to your spell checker.

As usual, I searched the Internet for leads to ‘crowdsourcing’ information, and our good friends at Wikipedia didn’t disappoint. “Crowdsourcing is the act of outsourcing tasks, traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, to an undefined, large group of people or community (a “crowd”), through an open call.” Wikipedia also has an alphabetical list of about 80 crowdsourcing projects provided for the person interested in researching the possibilities. The page lists everything from “Australian Historic Newspapers provided by the National Library of Australia encourages members of the public to correct/fix up/improve the electronically translated (OCR) text of old newspapers.” to “Zooppa is a global social network for creative talent that crowdsources advertising. Founded in 2007, Zooppa partners with companies to launch brand sponsored advertising contests.” and lots more interesting applications of crowdsourcing.

Coincidentally, I recently met Ellen Forsyth, a librarian from Australia visiting the USA. She is a library consultant with the State Library of New South Wales, and she told my colleagues and me about this crowdsourcing project and how it had proven highly productive and a catalyst for public support for the library.

The term was “first coined by Jeff Howe in a June 2006 Wired magazine article “The Rise of Crowdsourcing“” as a combination of ‘crowd’ and ‘outsourcing’. But, the concept of crowdsourcing has been around since at least the turn of the century [I love saying that.], unless you count Project Gutenberg’s distributed proofreaders crowdsourcing, which has been around longer.

The point is that incorporating this technique into library offerings is a new 21st Century Library skill that more libraries need to adopt. We have heard and read that libraries must evolve from passive providers of access to books to something more. Fall 2009, the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) launched its 21st Century Skills initiatives with a 40 page report titled “Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills” [Citation: Institute of Museum and Library Services (2009). Museums, Libraries, and 21st Century Skills (IMLS-2009- NAI-01). Washington, D.C.], in which the Institute provided this appeal to the library profession.


    • Evaluate how its current mission aligns with the goal of helping the [library] and community respond to the challenges of the 21st century;
    • Assess where the [library] sits today on the continuum of supporting the development of its audiences’ 21st century skills;
    • Become increasingly embedded in the community in order to create lasting partnerships that address 21st century audience needs; and
    • Design new programs and strategies to help individuals meet the new and more demanding challenges of 21st century life.

The collective leadership of the … library community can play a major role in setting and implementing this new strategic direction. It is our hope that the conversations sparked by this report and tool will invigorate meaningful collaborations among [libraries] and other stakeholders to help every community embrace its 21st century challenges with enthusiasm and confidence.”

Crowdsourcing is a new 21st Century Library skill from which every library and community can benefit.

However, crowdsourcing is not without its potential pitfalls. The Chronicle of Higher Education reported June 14 that Civil War Project Shows Pros and Cons of Crowdsourcing.

The University of Iowa is the latest to use crowdsourcing to let anyone online help do work once reserved for scholars and archivists—in this case, inviting volunteers to transcribe a trove of Civil War-era diaries.

… traffic spiked suddenly last week, when the project was featured prominently on Reddit, a popular blog in which users post and vote on interesting Internet links. The site received over 32,000 unique hits—30 times its usual traffic for the week … the rush of users crippled the Web site for a day. “Once the site started to get that much traffic, pretty much you couldn’t get to anything in the digital library,” Mr. Prickman said.

Staff members have spent more time checking the work of volunteers than they would have had to do if they had hired professional transcribers, Mr. Prickman says. But it has not been an excessive amount of time, and the cost-savings have made the project possible, according to Mr. Prickman. “I think we’ve also come to recognize some ‘power users’ who transcribe in great quantity with high accuracy,” he wrote in an email.

… Sharon Leon, director of public projects at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, who is conducting a similar crowdsourcing project in which volunteers transcribe handwritten documents from the now-defunct U.S. War Department of the 1800s.

“I don’t think anyone believes that there’s going to be a wholesale replacement of an awful lot of paid staff labor by crowdsourcing projects,” Ms. Leon said. “It gets the public involved, but it makes new kinds of work for existing staff.”

Sounds like a problem most libraries would love to deal with – too much help.

Crowdsourcing is a new 21st Century Library skill from which every library and community can benefit. Find good examples and ask for advice from those who have tried it and succeeded at getting their community involved in their library.

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