This past week was a tough one for everyone. As our collective fate hung in the balance, we were somehow expected to function? To work, to raise our kids, to maintain our mental health.
I suffer from anxiety. Last week was like the super bowl for anxiety. It was hard to function. Hard to focus on anything other than constantly refreshing election results. Hard to meet deadlines. Hard to produce work product. Easy to fixate.
When I find myself fixating, I try to switch my focus from whatever event or situation I’m in that I can’t control, to something I can control. Like baking with my kids. Or Organizing. Or cleaning. My apartment the week my appellate brief was due in law school? Sparkling. Most other weeks that year? Much less so.
When anxiety befell me this time, I dug into some materials from a conference I recently attended, Digital Directions. One of the excellent sessions was on copyright and digital collections. As I paged through the PowerPoint, a tidbit caught my eye that I remembered from the live session, a project the New York Public Library built in 2011 called “What’s on the Menu?” This project involved crowdsourcing metadata for a collection of vintage menus.
Previously, my experience with crowdsourcing centered on legal research tools such as Casetext or Mootus, as discussed by Ashley Ahlbrand in her RIPS post from 2014. I also viewed crowdsourcing through the lens of a repository project manager, an interesting way to fill in metadata beyond the collective knowledge of current librarians and previous documentation efforts. Or as a method to obtain transcriptions without paying the price to a vendor or in staff time, such as this project from Stanford Libraries.
But crowdsourcing can also be an excellent tool for patron engagement. In 2016, the Law Library of Congress launched a large-scale crowdsourcing project to apply metadata to a collection of primary law documents obtained from William S. Hein & Co, Inc. The project was staffed with a group of interns (primarily current law and library science students). Overwhelmingly, the students loved the experience, finding it educational and valuable. They enjoyed working with primary materials and the convenience of working remotely.
There are a plethora of ongoing projects if you or your patrons are interested in breaking into the crowdsourcing game. Following the passage of the Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Act of 2016, the U.S. government launched citizenscience.gov, designed to accelerate the use of crowdsourcing and citizen science across the U.S. government. The site hosts a database of projects, a community, and Toolkit. NARA, The Smithsonian, and the Library of Congress regularly post regarding upcoming and ongoing projects. Zooniverse and Metadata Games are also excellent resources for identifying possible projects and collaborations.
You can also launch a crowdsourcing project at your library. There are several good resources available to assist in the planning, such as books, past AALL presentations, blog posts with tips from previous projects, and research studies evaluating past projects with recommendations for best practices.
At a time when we are struggling to engage with patrons due to COVID-19 restrictions, crowdsourcing can be an excellent method to reach and celebrate all our various patron bases, such as students, faculty, alumni and the public. Anyone can participate from wherever they are, and they can feel like they are a part of something, while maybe learning along the way.