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Crowdsourcing at the British Library: lessons learnt and future directions

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Digital Humanities Congress, University of Sheffield, September 2018.
The British Library has been experimenting with crowdsourcing since it launched the Georeferencer ( in 2012. It launched an updated platform for crowdsourcing in late 2017. Currently the platform supports two projects, In the Spotlight (, transcribing information from the Library's historic collection of theatre playbills) and Convert-a-Card (, converting printed card catalogues into digital records).

This presentation will provide a case study of the implementation of this crowdsourcing platform, considering how the design of behind-the-scenes processes such as metadata workflow, and visible outputs such as the user experience and conversations with participants, were informed by lessons learnt from past projects. The platform is integrated with new Library infrastructure that publishes images in IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework, and has pioneered the use of web annotations for crowdsourced data.

It will discuss how and why In the Spotlight was designed with a balance between productivity (the number of tasks completed) with enjoyment and opportunities for engagement (whether discussing interesting playbills on the forum or social media, or investigating aspects of theatre history) in mind. It will also look at the integration of crowdsourced data into the Library's catalogues, and how the project has changed in response to requests and feedback from participants.

The presentation will include a progress update on the project, and discuss how we applied best practices like usability testing and Europeana's Impact model ( It will finish with a preview of future plans for the platform, including the ability for library staff to build their own projects with digitised collections in compatible formats. Reducing the technical overhead for launching a pilot project could be immensely valuable - but how will we ensure that anyone starting a project understands that crowdsourcing is more about people than it is about technology?

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Crowdsourcing at the British Library: lessons learnt and future directions

  1. 1. Crowdsourcing at the British Library: lessons learnt and future directions Dr. Mia Ridge, Digital Humanities Congress Sheffield, September 2018
  2. 2. Defining crowdsourcing in cultural heritage 2
  3. 3. Asking the public to help with tasks that contribute to a shared, significant goal or research interest related to cultural heritage collections or knowledge. The activities and/or goals should be inherently rewarding. Crowdsourcing in cultural heritage 3
  4. 4. Heritage crowdsourcing as volunteering 4
  5. 5. ...but convenient by Jason Devaun 5
  6. 6. Potentially huge reach and impact by Jason Devaun Hundreds of millions contributions Tens of millions online volunteers Hundreds of completed projects 6
  7. 7. Aligned with British Library's mission 7
  8. 8. Case study: designing In the Spotlight 8
  9. 9. Playbills 'In the Spotlight' Collection of over 230,000 printed sheets in 1,000 volumes Minimal cataloguing: 'A collection of playbills from miscellaneous Plymouth theatres 1796-1882' No information about individual playbills, performances, people 9
  10. 10. =005 20180813120353.0 =006 md =007 cr||||||||||| =008 180813r20171818enk|||||s|0||0|eng =033 0$a18181211$pTheatre Royal (Bath, England) =040 $aUk$beng$cUk$erda =042 $aukblproject =110 2$aTheatre Royal (Bath, England)$eauthor =245 11$a[Playbill. At Theatre Royal, Bath] =264 30$a[London] :$b[British Library Playbills Project],$c2017. =300 $a1 online resource =336 $atext$2rdacontent =337 $acomputer$2rdamedia =338 $aonline resource$2rdacarrier =500 $aTitle devised by cataloguing agency. =518 $aPerformace date: 11th December 1818. =530 $aAlso available in print. =534 $pReproduction of (manifestation):$aTheatre Royal (Bath, England)$t[Playbill. At Theatre Royal, Bath]$c1818. =650 0$aTheater$zGreat Britain$y19th Century. =655 0$aPlaybills (Posters)$zEngland$zBath$y1818. =655 7$aPlaybills (Posters)$2fast$0(OCoLC)fst01919953 =710 2$aBritish Library Playbills Project,$emanufacturer. =773 0$aTheatre Royal (Bath, England)$tA collection of playbills from Theatre Royal, Bath 1812- 1818.$oDigital Store Playbills 178.$w(Uk)016661285 =856 40$u$ydigitised sheet =916 $a110 not NACO =916 $a710/1 not NACO =SRC $aPlaybills Project Preparing the ground 10
  11. 11. Designing an ecosystem of tasks 11
  12. 12. Designing for productivity and engagement 12
  13. 13. Making results useful quickly 13
  14. 14. On not doing everything 14
  15. 15. How do you know you're making a difference?
  16. 16. Life after launch 16
  17. 17. Learning from comments • At the head of page is the title of the main work performed - "The Haunted Tower." The boxed title is for the ballet "Don Juan" which follows "The Haunted Tower." • "Merchant of Venice" followed by "Lovers' Quarrels." • This feels as though it should be 'The POOR SOLDIER' rather than just 'POOR SOLDIER' • 'The' should also be highlighted as part of this title • Title of musical farce not outlined, so cannot transcribe it. • This play is not the same date as the main plays of the bill. • This play is also not the same date as the main plays of the bill. • The Death of Gen. Wolfe is a ballet, not a play. • Is this a reference to the 'Flitch of Bacon custom' in Essex? • forthcoming, not main item on playbill • not sure if 'The Tragedy of' is the genre or part of the title 17
  18. 18. Amplifying voices 18
  19. 19. Participant stories Outreach 19
  20. 20. 20 Responding to user requests
  21. 21. Future goals: platform for other people's research? Could we let academics and volunteers set up new tasks based on our collections? How would we ensure that they were committed to recruit and motivate volunteers, report on progress? 21
  22. 22. Future work Fix 'hygiene' issues with user experience (UX): • Review and tidy documentation / help screens and posts that have gotten out of sync • Improve tagging / viewing tags experience • Better access to data for researchers; easier progress reports (update Jupyter notebooks) New tasks? E.g. confirm theatre names, locations Rethink 'performances' - not just plays? Fun uses of data - #OnThisDay tweets? Provide practice tasks with feedback on how you did Analyse and use survey data 22
  23. 23. Thank you for listening. Thanks to: Alex Mendes, Christian Algar, Beatrice Ashton-Lelliott and our 1600+ volunteers