Why do cultural heritage institutions support crowdsourcing projects?

Understanding why cultural heritage institutions undertake crowdsourcing projects provides important context, not only for measuring their success but also for understanding some of the barriers to success they face.The most obvious reason is that the size of the backlog of collection items needing transcription or description is beyond the scope of'business as usual projects. Resources are rarely available to adequately catalogue or describe in detail digitised collection items held by museums, libraries, archives and other institutions. Software designed to transcribe printed or handwritten text usually has some percentage of character- or word-level errors, hindering full-text search. Images, audio and moving image files often similarly lack detailed information about subjects depicted; audio transcription software may not be 100% accurate and cannot recognise subtle references to important individuals, events or subjects that a human can. If digital images or media files can be shared on crowdsourcing interfaces, tasks such as those discussed above can be applied to them.

Keywords and phrases suggested by the public can bridge the ‘semantic gap' between the language used in catalogues designed for internal or specialist users, and the everyday language used by the public, to make collection items more discoverable (Trant, 2009).

As deeply specialist roles have been phased out and curatorial or reference teams are asked to cover longer periods or wider regions of specialist collections, it is increasingly likely that the most expert person on a specific item or collection may not work for the institution. Crowdsourcing can create opportunities for them to share their expert knowledge with an institution.

A number of projects have shown that crowdsourcing can create meaningful experiences with collections, and provide opportunities for learning and delight (Ridge, 2013, 2015). Well-designed projects can help people discover new interests, communities, or just encourage them to have a brief moment of deeper engagement with cultural heritage. This makes crowdsourcing a good fit for institutions whose missions encourage access, creativity, engagement or learning through their collections and knowledge.

Why do people contribute to crowdsourcing projects?

Understanding participant motivations is vital for designing successful projects that can attract and retain participants. Research on traditional volunteering, citizen science and GLAM crowdsourcing projects has provided insights into why people donate their time. Research into volunteering by psychologists Clary et al found six groups of motivations for volunteers: values ('altruistic and humanitarian concerns for others'), understanding (new learning experiences and the chance to practice knowledge, skills and abilities), social ‘relationships with others’, career-related benefits, ego-protective (‘eliminating negative aspects surrounding the ego’), and enhancement (positive strivings for growth and development) (Clary et al., 1998). Research with museum volunteers found that ‘doing something enjoyable’, an interest in the subject, meeting people and ‘making friends’ were the main reasons for volunteering (Edwards & Graham, 2006).

Zooniverse projects have made a substantial contribution to research on motivations in citizen science. In one study, nearly 40% of Galaxy Zoo participants selected ‘I am excited to contribute to original scientific research' as their main motivation, with the next most common primary motivation being: ‘I am interested in astronomy’ (Raddick et al., 2010). Alam and Campbell (2017) and Ferriter et al. (2016) have investigated how motivations change over time. A common thread across other projects is an interest in the subject (Eccles & Greg, 2014; Leon, 2014), with participants self-fashioning roles within a project to suit their interest (Das Gupta, Rooney, & Schreibman, n.d.).

When thinking about motivations in practical terms, I find grouping motivations relevant to heritage crowdsourcing into extrinsic, intrinsic and altruistic motivations is useful. Very few cultural heritage crowdsourcing projects support extrinsic motivations, such as tangible rewards.22 Intrinsic motivations including fun, an interest in the subject and socialising are inherently rewarding and come into effect when an activity is worth doing for its own sake, regardless of external rewards (Csikszentmihalyi & Hermanson, 1995). Altruistic motivations include those related to the ‘collective’ or greater good, ‘the importance attributed to the project’s goals’ (Nov, Arazy, & Anderson, 2011), and ideological values or principles. Jane McGonigal summarises much of the literature in her memorable overview of‘what humans crave’ and ‘what museums give us’: T. satisfying work to do 2. the experience of being good at something 3. time spent with people we like 4. the chance to be a part of something bigger’ (McGonigal, n.d.).

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