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Smithsonian Turns To Crowdsourcing In An Effort To Digitize Historical Documents

August 13, 2014
Image Caption: A tray of bumble bees from the National Museum of Natural History’s bee collection awaits digitization. The museum is digitizing all 45,000 specimens in its collection and using virtual volunteers to help transcribe important data found on each specimen’s tag. This data will help scientists studying declining bee populations in North America. Credit: John Gibbons, Smithsonian

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

The Smithsonian Institution is recruiting volunteers willing to help them digitize documents like handwritten Civil War journals, letters written by famous artists and century-old botany specimen labels so that these nuggets of American history can educate and entertain Web surfers throughout the world.

The Smithsonian’s Transcription Center website, launched to the public earlier this week, is an attempt to create an online archive of the Institute’s collection while also making it more accessible to the community and to facilitate research. To that end, the Center is working with digital volunteers to transcribe historical documents and collection records, since many of them are handwritten or cannot be deciphered by computers.

Millions of objects, specimens and documents have already been added to the collection, the museum and research complex said, but there is still much work to be done. So on Tuesday, the Smithsonian issued a public call for volunteers willing to help decipher a multitude of items, ranging from handwritten specimen tags to early US currency.

“We are thrilled to invite the public to be our partners in the creation of knowledge to help open our resources for professional and casual researchers to make new discoveries,” Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said. “For years, the vast resources of the Smithsonian were powered by the pen; they can now be powered by the pixel.”

“Though many specimen and documents have been digitized, handwriting can be tricky,” added Helen Thompson of Smithsonian.com. “The goal is to crowdsource the transcription of material that a computer just can’t decipher. By opening the transcription process up to the public, they hope to make those images not only accessible, but searchable and indexable to researchers and anyone else who’s interested across the globe.”

A year-long period of beta testing started in June 2013, and according to Thompson, 1,000 volunteers were able to transcribe more than 13,000 pages of archived documents during that time. One of the items digitized during that time was the personal correspondence of members of the Monuments Men, which is held in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art collection. A team of 49 volunteers completed that 200-page project in just one week.

In fact, in some instances, the Institute reports that volunteers are successfully digitizing items or collections in a fraction of the time that would have been required without their assistance. However, since crowdsourcing can open the door for mistakes to be made, the Smithsonian is having several individuals work on and review each page in an attempt to avoid typos or discrepancies. Once the work is finished, the accuracy will be verified by an Institute expert.

For those interested, some of the ongoing digitization projects include Mary Smith’s Commonplace Book Concerning Science and Mathematics, a handwritten book that contains a summary of several scientific discoveries from the late 1700s; a multi-volume English-Alabama and Alabama-English dictionary compiled between 1906 and 1913; and a project involving the photographing and deciphering of the tags on 45,000 bee specimens.

“Once finished projects get the Smithsonian’s stamp of approval users can download them through the collections website or the transcription center,” Thompson said. “As the Smithsonian digitizes more and more of its collections, the plan is to make them available online for volunteers to transcribe and historical scholars and enthusiasts to enjoy.”

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Source: redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online



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