Crowdsourcing

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A dog living it up. Courtesy of the Poole Collection from the National Library of Ireland Photographic Archive

I originally had a different topic in mind for the latest blog but reading this article about the National Library of Ireland Photographic Archive got me thinking about crowdsourcing and some of the projects out there which take advantage of it.

What exactly is crowdsourcing? According to the Miriam Webster dictionary it can be defined as “the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.” Wikipedia might be the most well known example, although there is disagreement as to whether it truly counts as crowdsourcing.

Not surprisingly many genealogy and family history related projects have been keen to tap into crowdsourcing. Sometimes we do it without even realising what we are doing. One of the best examples is on social media. Many of us will have at one time or another posted an image of a difficult to read record in a Facebook group or on another platform in order to solicit help from others.

However there are a number of more formal projects based around the crowdsourcing method. Many of those who engage in researching family history, either at an amateur or professional level, will be familiar with the free website FamilySearch, which is run by the Church of Latter Day Saints. While the website is a treasure trove of genealogical information, not everything on it is indexed. As a free website there is a limited amount of resources they can devote to indexing all these records, particularly when new records are constantly being added. The solution is to allow members of the public to participate in this indexing. If you are frustrated at the difficulty in trying to locate a record on FamilySearch then one solution is to lend a hand with the indexing. That way other researchers won’t have the same problem. You can find out more here.

In Ireland, our institutions have been quick to embrace crowdsourcing. In 2011, the National Library of Ireland uploaded it’s photographic archive to Flickr, making them freely available to browse from anywhere in the world. Alongside that, the library began soliciting help from users to identify the places and people featured in the photos. I wrote a post on this collection a few years ago when discussing sporting ancestors. I would highly recommend browsing through the collection. Who knows what family secrets you might help uncover or mysteries you might be able to resolve.

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The National University of Ireland Maynooth also saw an opportunity with crowdsourcing when they created the Letters of 1916 project. Launched in 2013, this was the first public humanities project in Ireland. The original goal of the project was to collect letters from 1916 and make them available online. The letters weren’t just those belonging to libraries, archives and universities. Members of the public were also encouraged to contribute their own letters from the period to the project and collection roadshows were held around the country. Once a letter has been contributed, volunteers can register to assist with transcribing. The letters cover a wide range of topics, from official government correspondence to letters of a more personal nature. The project has been such a success that it’s remit has been expanded to cover the entire revolutionary period in Ireland, from 1916 to the end of the Irish Civil War in 1923. Anyone can volunteer and it’s a great way to learn more about the period.

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If you have an interest in Irish folklore, then my recommendation would be to explore the Schools Collection of the National Folklore Collection. These stories were collected by primary school children throughout the country in the 1930s and came from interviews they conducted with relatives and neighbours. The stories range from the origins of local placenames, to tales of the supernatural. Volunteers are needed to assist in transcribing the collection. It’s always worth doing because you never know what you might find. Searching through the collection revealed that some of my own relatives had been collectors.

There are many more examples of crowdsourcing projects out there and most don’t require more than an hour or two of your time every so often. Be warned though that once you start volunteering you might find yourself addicted.

Of course, crowdsourcing won’t work for every family history project and it requires effective management in order to succeed. But when it works it can be a great way for professionals and members of the public to learn more about the past.

 

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