Summer 2021 Volunteer Survey: What Motivates ‘By the People’ Volunteers?

Today’s guest post is from Abby Shelton, a community manager for the By the People crowdsourced transcription program. Launched in 2018, By the People is a volunteer engagement and collection enhancement program at the Library of Congress that invites the public to explore and transcribe Library of Congress digital collections. When transcriptions are completed by volunteers on crowd.loc.gov, they are then integrated back into the Library’s online catalog on loc.gov, where they become fully searchable and readable by accessibility technologies.


“Crowdsourcing,” “the crowd,” or “the public.” We often use these broad terms when we refer to the volunteers who make up the heart of By the People, the Library’s crowdsourcing program. We know our volunteer base is by no means monolithic, but made up of a diverse group of people from different life stages and experiences, with a wide variety of interests and motivations. Since our program began in 2018, we’ve been refining our understanding of who are volunteers are, what motivates them, and how we can improve the experience for their particular interests and needs.

In the summer of 2021, we sent a ten question survey to our registered volunteers and newsletter subscribers. We asked them to identify a few demographic details, chiefly the time spent volunteering each week, how many months or years they had volunteered, and to identify themselves with a few different groups, such as educator, student, retiree. The heart of the survey, however, was a series of eight statements we asked volunteers to rank, and then comment on, to evaluate their motivations for participating in By the People. We also asked volunteers to reflect on what they had gained, or what impact they felt, volunteering for By the People had made on their lives.

Making collections accessible, giving back, interested in campaigns topics! 

So what motivates our volunteers? The strongest motivating factors for By the People volunteers were making the collections more accessible and discoverable, giving back and helping an organization that serves the public good, and an interest in the topics, people, and time periods represented in the campaigns. Over 90% of survey takers responded to these statements with “agree” or “strongly agree” (see figure below).

Figure 1. This chart shows the motivational statements from the survey listed by the number of volunteers that ranked them in the “strongly agree” category, represented by the orange bar.

This chart shows the motivational statements from the survey listed by the number of volunteers that ranked them in the “strongly agree” category, represented by the orange bar.

Overall, volunteers rated making collections more accessible and discoverable as the top motivator. This was borne out by the qualitative responses where many survey takers referenced feeling good that they are making documents more discoverable for the public and for researchers. Volunteers also connected making collections accessible and preserving something for future generations. For instance, “I like that I’m able to help others access information that would otherwise be lost to time,” or “it is satisfying to know that my work will allow future generations to learn about history in a more accessible manner.”

Volunteers rated giving back and helping an organization that serves the public good as a second motivating factor.  In the qualitative responses, we found that volunteers connected this motivation with a sense of purpose or accomplishment and feeling part of something bigger, including civic pride or patriotism. They also frequently mentioned wanting to giving back in a way that was flexible and felt safe during the pandemic.  Some respondents reflected on the extra time they had during the pandemic and shared that volunteering with By the People was a way to productively make use of their time at home. One volunteer described transcribing for By the People as “a worthwhile pursuit during winter or lock-down periods.”

A view of our 2021 campaigns! From top L-R, Early Copyright Title Pages, President James Garfield, Herencia. From bottom l-r, Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, and Mary Church Terrell.

A view of our 2021 campaigns! From top L-R, Early Copyright Title Pages, President James Garfield, Herencia. From bottom L-R, Walt Whitman, Clara Barton, and Mary Church Terrell.

The third highest ranked motivational statement was an interest in the topics, periods in history, or people represented in the collections. Volunteers elaborated on this motivation in their qualitative responses by describing their interests in several ways: feeling close to history, looking “behind-the-scenes,” and learning new things. Frequently, volunteers talked about the process of transcribing as allowing them to get close to historical figures, almost like getting to know them personally. One volunteer wrote, “I love feeling a sense of connection to historical people (especially the lesser-known ones), getting to know about their thoughts and how they saw the world, thinking about the ways they used language to express themselves, and recognizing what I have in common with them.”

New skills and a supportive community 

The next two statements were scored closely together: volunteering motivated by improving skills and a lifelong learning journey, and feeling part of a community of volunteers. Volunteers referenced a range of skills they felt they were able to use or improve by participating in By the People. Those included language skills, particularly Spanish, typing or clerical skills, research skills, and handwriting skills. For some volunteers, transcribing allowed them to keep certain skills fresh. Others found they were able to take skills they are currently learning and apply them to transcriptions. For example, one student respondent expressed that volunteering has helped them improve their Spanish and research skills. One volunteer even mentioned gaining a greater knowledge and familiarity using Wikipedia because they had done so much extra research on the materials they were transcribing!

Volunteers also mentioned community in their qualitative responses when answering questions about motivations. Several volunteers described their fellow volunteers as a “learning community.” One volunteer said, “I think this is a fun way to contribute to a learning community,” while another expressed that “being part of a community that wants to learn” was one of the positive impacts that volunteering had made in their lives. Several respondents mentioned the value of an online community in a time of isolation, especially during pandemic-related lockdowns.

Meeting goals, service hours, and classroom use 

The final three motivational statements on the survey were: meeting campaign and challenge goalsfulfilling needed community service hours, and using the site in a classroom as a student or educator. The latter two statements were targeted at very specific user groups which included students and educators. We heard from a number of academic librarians who said that they were able to use their transcription activity to count towards service hours required by their employers to maintain faculty status. Several volunteers who indicated they were motivated by service hours also noted that after fulfilling their requirements they continued to transcribe. One volunteer indicated that even though their school term had ended, they continued to participate as a hobby, “because I love reading, writing (reading old letters helps because they’re so eloquent), and history.”

A group of students gather around the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, to help transcribe document for By the People during an event in 2018. Photo by Shawn Miller.

A group of students gather around the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden, to help transcribe documents for By the People during an event in 2018. Photo by Shawn Miller.

We are grateful to all of our volunteers who filled out our survey and contribute to our knowledge of the Library’s collections each and every day. The By the People team plans to use what we’ve learned to help frame new campaigns, challenges, and even the continued development of the transcription platform, Concordia. For instance, because we know that making the collections accessible and useful is a top goal for many volunteers, we’re planning to publish a round of blog posts highlighting the ways people are using transcriptions for research, teaching, or personal interest. You can find our first post, a conversation with Lincoln scholar Jon White, here.

Stay tuned for a series of future Signal posts elaborating on some of the key findings from our summer survey and some of the ways that the By the People team is working to improve our program to better serve volunteer needs! You can get involved here: crowd.loc.gov

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