You think your company’s digitization project is challenging? Imagine scanning millions of documents from the 19th century or earlier—in handwriting.

The Smithsonian Institute is taking on such a project and given the herculean effort involved, the museum, also known as “America’s attic,” started a Digital Volunteers: Transcription Center program in June 2013. The program, which already has 83,086 transcribed pages, offers volunteers projects from a dozen museums in six “themes.” These themes range from the Biodiverse Planet, which typically consists of transcribing specimen labels and field notebooks, to the Mysteries of the Universe, which covers astronomy and astrophysics. People can also volunteer to review a transcription to ensure that it’s accurate. The institution opened the program to the broader Internet this August.

“The Smithsonian has already produced digital images for millions of objects, specimens and documents in its collection,” the organization said when it announced the public opening of the program. “Many of the digitized documents are handwritten or have text that computers cannot easily decipher. Transcription by humans is the only way to make the text of these items searchable, which will open them up for endless opportunities for research and discovery.”

In a couple of days, volunteers complete what would take the Smithsonian months, the organization notes. By mid-September, 3,400 volunteers had already signed up.

Transcribing handwriting is increasingly important, the Smithsonian notes on its webpage, as students are less likely to learn cursive in school and future generations may be unable to read the documents.

Which project is the most popular? With 691 contributions, The Bumblebee Project is in the lead. Volunteers on this project create digital records for the United States National Entomological Collection of almost 45,000 bumblebee specimens. “Information about each bee, such as where it was collected and when it was collected, is extremely valuable to scientists studying the rapid decline of bee populations during the past few decades,” the Smithsonian writes.

“The only way to obtain this information before digitization and transcription would be for a scientist to come to the museum and read each tiny, handwritten label (often as small as 3 millimeters by 7 millimeters) and record the information. Now, with the information digitized and transcribed, scientists anywhere in the world can understand more about the population history of the bumblebee and its recent population decline.”

The Smithsonian offers some best practices for other organizations using the power of crowds to transcribe old and fragile documents:

  • Create a Twitter community. The Smithsonian created  #volunpeers to help people work  together and to create a community.
  • Say thank you. The project’s webpage gives the most recent contributors a shout-out for finishing a page, and its Facebook page is constantly engaging with volunteers by asking them what they’ve learned from their projects.
  • Offer tips on how to transcribe and review documents. Also post instructions that are specific to different types of documents, such as diaries vs. astronomical notebooks. The tips the Smithsonian offers on its site could be useful to any organization that has to manually transcribe documents. It has also published Best of Both Worlds: Museums, Libraries, and Archives in a Digital Age, an e-book on how museums can use technology to open their collections to the world.

There’s plenty to keep volunteers busy, Kelly Crow writes in the Wall Street Journal. “Between the Smithsonian’s 19 museums and nine research centers, it must digitize some 137 million objects and specimens,” writes Crow. For example, the curator of manuscripts for the Smithsonian Archives of American Art has 20 million documents, only 2 million of which have been transcribed and uploaded.

Much like the New York Times’ Madison project, which hopes that access to the documents is its own reward for its volunteers, the Smithsonian is finding that the people who participate are getting invested in the outcome of the documents they read. Crow, for example, transcribed a letter from an artist to test the process as part of her article, and ended up researching the history of the painting the letter discussed.

In fact, the Smithsonian is discovering that its band of volunteers is actually helping to boost the museum’s profile because these people are more engaged with the organization in general.  “When they had folks get involved in transcribing, they started to get more donations, people really got engaged, their website traffic went up,” Meredith Stewart of the Office of Innovation at the National Archives and Records Administration told Forbes. “This process can snowball. The more people are involved, the more history is preserved, the more attention the organization receives, the more funders see value and donate, the more resources the organization has to devote to its mission, the more history is saved.”

“You might get to look at specimens collected by Martin W. Gorman on his 1902 expedition to Alaska’s Lake Iliamna Region, and read his thoughts on his curious findings,” agrees Hamish McKenzie in PandoDaily. “If you’re the type to get excited by a bit of vintage potentilla fruitcosa, then this is your Disneyland.”


Simplicity 2.0 is where we examine the intricate and transitory world of technology—through a Laserfiche lens. By keeping an eye on larger trends, we aim to make software that’s relevant to modern day workers, rather than build technology for technology’s sake.

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