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Celebrating a year with By the People

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We’re delighted to celebrate By the People with this guest post from LC Labs Senior Innovation Specialist and By the People Community Manager, Lauren Algee. Connect with Lauren and her fellow Community Managers Elaine Kamlley and Victoria Van Hyning via History Hub and on Twitter, as well as GitHub.

Today marks one whole year of the Library of Congress crowdsourcing program By the People!  The project invites volunteers to create and review transcriptions that can be added to our main Library of Congress website ( By the People is built on our open source crowdsourcing platform Concordia, which centers the design principles of trust and approachability.

We launched the program on October 24, 2018 with the goal of engaging volunteers to explore and connect to Library of Congress collections while enhancing searchability, readability, and research use of digitized collections. Since then, over 11,000 volunteers have registered and even more have contributed anonymously.  Together they’ve completed transcription of over 31,000 digital collection pages and another 55,000 await peer review.

We’re steadily working to integrate completed transcriptions into the digital collections on Nearly 8,000 have already been added and now enable keyword search and readability, including by accessibility technologies like screen readers. The entirely volunteer created and reviewed transcriptions sit alongside the digitized images and volunteers are credited on every page.

Huge thanks for our success is due to staff across the institution, who helped develop the Concordia codebase, serve as collection subject experts, develop and execute the workflows to return data to, respond to reference questions, help spread the word as project ambassadors, and more.

Screenshot of a letter written to Abraham Lincoln side-by-side with the text transcription of the letter.
A digitized letter from the Abraham Lincoln Papers with a volunteer-created transcription (left) as presented on

Highlighting Digital Collections

We found that volunteers’ interests and appetites are wide-ranging. They have jumped in to contribute to collections across a wide range of subjects, material types, and difficulty levels, always with great curiosity and oriented to the goals of aiding the Library and future researchers.

In just 12 months, the project has added a total of 11 campaigns for volunteers to transcribe and tag. By the People focuses on handwritten or complex typed materials that aren’t amenable to automated transcription through Optical Character Recognition (OCR). Launch collections included Clara Barton’s diaries, the papers of activist and educator Mary Church Terrell, letters to Abraham Lincoln, memoirs of disabled Civil War Union veterans, and Branch Rickey’s baseball scouting reports.

The Rickey campaign was our first completed in just 4 months! A real home run by volunteers! We made that entire dataset available in bulk and explored some avenues of computational research transcribed collections may open in this previous Signal post.

We added a campaign of writings of Walt Whitman in April to celebrate poetry month and the bicentennial of his birth in May. In June the papers of four leaders of the women’s suffrage movement joined Mary Church Terrell’s under a single thematic topic, Suffrage: Women Fight for the Vote, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th constitutional amendment. September marked our first collaboration with the American Folklife Center – a call to transcribe the written archives of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax.

What’s ahead? We’ll continue to release new and diverse materials, working towards representation of the full scope of Library of Congress collections. Our next will be a Civil War prisoner of war diary, released in time for Veteran’s Day weekend.  In December, we’ll add selections from Rosa Parks’ papers to coincide with an exhibition her life opening at the Library!

Volunteer Impact

We’ve been awed by the response from individuals eager to give their time and energy to enhance Library collections and build a community of practice and support for the project and each other.  By the People opens the treasure chest of Library of Congress collections, invites volunteers to dive in, and empowers them to open the door even more widely those who will come after. We have to make sure we meet them where they are and provide opportunity for meaningful contribution.

Some of our biggest ambassadors are educators. From teachers using By the People with students from elementary school to college professors, we hear that the real world impact of BTP makes it a compelling addition to curricula. Students care that they’re involved in producing and disseminating history.

Two women gathered around a tablet and laptop as they confer about transcribing historical documents.
Students in Georgetown’s Fall 2019 “HIST 480 – Lincoln” transcribe and discuss documents in the By the People “Letters to Lincoln” campaign.

Many volunteers work independently, but we’ve also seen interest from schools, libraries and other community organizations in hosting By the People events to forge relationships between the Library of Congress, those communities, and their own histories. In February we co-hosted a transcribe-a-thon for the papers of hometown hero Mary Church Terrell, with the DC Public Library, which tied the LOC materials on By the People to the public library’s local history collections. That event and feedback from other independent organizers shaped a model and documentation for replicable transcription programs. We’ve followed the model of Wikipedia-edit-a-thons to give you everything you need to know to host a successful By the People event.

We’ve also issued challenges to drive exploration of a particular set of collections, introduce volunteers to different activities, and help move pages across the finish line. These time-bound and goal-oriented virtual events ask volunteers to focus on specific activity and are usually tied to events like Memorial Day, Women’s History Month, and the Women’s Suffrage anniversary. For the latter, we asked volunteers to honor the women who led the suffrage movement by reviewing 1,000 pages of their writings in one week. They met the goal by mid-week so we upped the challenge to 2,000 pages, which they also blew past to complete a total of 2,258! This challenge not only drove completion, but prompted reflection on the lived experience of suffrage activists and introduced newer volunteers to the crucial activity of review.

Volunteers also work together virtually through the community of practice we’re building on History Hub, an open reference and discussion forum managed by the National Archives. There, volunteers can meet one another and the Community Managers, ask questions, share what they find, and support each other. It’s also an important vehicle for collecting user feedback about the project.

Building By the People

Throughout our first year we’ve iterated on our  platform, Concordia, letting user research, and analytics and program needs drive continued development.

Like many iterative web applications, we launched knowing our next priority for improvement, in our case the platform’s review workflow.  By January we were beginning to see concrete evidence of this need in the form of a bottleneck as the number of transcribed pages dramatically outpaced those being reviewed. Just as importantly, users were telling us that review wasn’t meeting their expectations. We hadn’t created a review “track” in the Concordia code to allow folks who wanted to review to keep doing so.  We used volunteer emails and History Hub posts about this issue to refine our feature requirements and prioritize its development.

As a result, in February we released a feature making it easier for users to start and stay reviewing. By June we could clearly see that the number of completed pages was growing, meaning that enhancements to the review track and to overall programming was having a positive impact. We also received positive feedback from volunteers. Driving completion isn’t just about campaign progress, but volunteer satisfaction – we need to give them the tools to engage deeply with collections,  and see the impact of their contributions.

In the coming year we will focus on further improving the user experience and helping volunteers more quickly and easily orient to the project goals and activities open to them. We look forward to adding more campaigns from many more divisions, and growing our community.

To stay up-to-date and follow along, you can subscribe to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter at @Crowd_LOC


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