Ruminations on #crowdsourcing, participation and museums

Came across two interesting stories this week (thanks to my FB buds from the ROM Online Team).

The first, British Library uploads one million public domain images to the net for remix and reuse, reports that:

“The British Library has uploaded one million public domain scans from 17th-19th century books to Flickr! They’re embarking on an ambitious programme to crowdsource novel uses and navigation tools for the huge corpus.”

The second story, Vatican, Oxford put ancient manuscripts online reports that:

“The Vatican Library and Oxford University’s Bodleian Library put the first of 1.5 million pages of their precious manuscripts online Tuesday, bringing their collections to a global audience for the first time.”

These are interesting times for museums as they not only expand their digital presence, they are enabling participation through re-mixing, re-using and via the flavour of the day, crowdsourcing.

However it is worth noting that crowdsourcing is not a new concept. In conducting research into the origins of crowdsourcing at the Smithsonian Institution, Bruno (2011) noted the Smithsonian’s “… longstanding tradition of involving volunteers in its mission to ‘increase and diffuse knowledge’.” (n.p). The Meteorological Project was one of the first crowdsourcing (collaborative) projects, started by the Smithsonian’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry:

“In 1849 he set up a network of some 150 volunteer weather observers all over the country. Within a decade, the project had more than 600 volunteer observers and had spread to Canada, Mexico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. The amateur weather enthusiasts submitted monthly reports that were then analyzed by James H. Coffin, professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, and finally published in 1861 in the first of a two- volume compilation of climatic data and storm observations based on the volunteers’ reports.” (Bruno, 2011, n.p.)

So what has changed in the twenty-first century? Tapscott and Williams, the authors of Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (2006) noted that “Digitisation means information can be shared, cross-referenced, and repurposed like never before. Knowledge can build more quickly within networks of firms and institutions that cross seamlessly over disciplinary boundaries” (p.153-154). They also stated that this revolution is not just about information access and archiving but creating and harvesting knowledge to “… drive economic and technological progress” (p.152), and in the museum context, a richer visitor experience that meets their needs and interests.

There’s a useful overview of museums and crowdsourcing in this Museums and the Web 2013 paper, Digital Humanities and Crowdsourcing: An Exploration, by Laura Carletti, Gabriella Giannachi, Dominic Price and Derek McAuley. The 2013 NMC Horizons Report looks at emerging technologies and what these mean for teaching, learning and education, and also for museums. Crowdsourcing was highlighted as a trend that will be adopted over the next 12 months:

“Crowdsourcing is compelling to museums and individuals alike; people can engage around ideas and content with others to produce work that none of them alone would have been able to accomplish. Social media communities on platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and many others have made it even easier for museums to share resources and garner input from large groups of people.” (Johnson, et al, p.17)

The authors also noted that crowdsourcing was not necessarily a new concept, but the possibilities of crowdfunding is. More about that in an article I wrote some time ago called Crowdfunding – what’s possible.

And, just as I was about to hit the publish button, up pops Gretchen Jennings with yet another thoughtful post , Radical Open Authority: When Life Happens and Museums Respond, that also relates to this topic.

Happy crowdsourcing!



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