Crowdsourcing – What it is and opportunities for the library world

There are a lot of ways to interact with other members of the library and information profession online. Twitter, blogs, LinkedIn, listservs are common ways to share thoughts, ideas, and experiences as well as provide encouragement and support to other members of the profession. With this month’s column I want to profile crowdsourcing, one of the ways that you can work with other members of the profession (and the whole internet community) to do what librarians do best – facilitate access to information.

What is crowdsourcing

According to the crowdsourcing Wikipedia entry (

“Crowdsourcing is the process of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people, and especially from an online community, rather than from traditional employees or suppliers.[1] While this definition from Merriam Webster is valid, a more specific definition is heavily debated.[2] The process of crowdsourcing is often used to subdivide tedious work[3] and has occurred successfully offline−see the examples below. It combines the efforts of numerous self-identified volunteers or part-time workers, where each contributor of their own initiative adds a small portion to the greater result. The term “crowdsourcing” is a portmanteau of “crowd” and “outsourcing”; it is distinguished from outsourcing in that the work comes from an undefined public rather than being commissioned from a specific, named group.”
[1] “Crowdsourcing – Definition and More”. August 31, 2012. Retrieved 2014-02-03.
[2] Estellés-Arolas, Enrique; González-Ladrón-de-Guevara, Fernando (2012), “Towards an Integrated Crowdsourcing Definition” (PDF), Journal of Information Science 38 (2): 189–200, doi:10.1177/0165551512437638
[3] Howe, Jeff (2006). “The Rise of Crowdsourcing”. Wired.

Looking at the statistics for the entry you can see how much of an impact crowdsourcing has.

Since its creation in 2006 the page has been revised 1,942 times by 955 editors. Think that was all at the beginning? Well you are wrong, 195 of those edits occurring the past 365 days. The page has 306 watchers and is linked to 894 other Wikipedia entries. What’s not to love about these sorts of statistics?!? We have individuals vested in making sure that not only information, but referenced up to date information is freely accessible. Doesn’t it just make your librariany heart flutter?

As you can see crowdsourcing isn’t just about funding Veronica Mars movies and Pebble watches. Crowdsourcing is also about utilising the passions and interests of many to create fantastic information products.

As library and information professionals our role is to recognise information needs and to fill those gaps. A dominant barrier to filling those gaps is often resourcing. An opportunity exists however the time cost associated with the task makes it unachievable. By selecting the right project – or more appropriately the right information need you can utilise the enthusiasm of not only your immediate client community but also the entire internet community to create an information product that would otherwise not be possible.

There are some things you need to consider before jumping into crowdsourcing. Whilst I’m going to touch on the technology considerations of crowdsourcing projects the copyright and legal issues associated with putting anything up on the internet should never be ignored.

The platform is key
The vast majority of library initiated crowdsourcing projects focus on digitisation projects. As such you need to think about where your interest groups are and what are they used to. Take the time to think about what platform is the best for your users. It doesn’t have to do everything under the sun it just needs to meet the identified need. For example, should your images be on an independent platform or Flickr?

Promote on all the social media!
Make your project as findable as possible by linking it everywhere! Projects like this take time to build up an audience but don’t be discouraged. Continually promote and remind your global audience about the project.

Consider the users – Barriers to entry aren’t nice
We’ve all had that moment when we are halfway through an online form and give up because it’s just too hard. Don’t make that happen with your project. Librarians by nature tend to like things on the controlled side. Blame it on the cataloguing but it’s true. There is always going to be an element of monitoring or quality control required in these projects. However, by locking down a project you discourage potential users.

What’s out there now?

  • Wikipedia (
    Are you a bigger fan of the hardcopy Encyclopedia Britannica? Known to have rants to colleagues about the inaccuracies of Wikipedia? Well help make it better! Set up a profile and start editing. The crowdsourced product is only as good as the authors and as librarians and information nerds we need to recognise the power of Wikipedia (it’s used a freakin-lot!) and help make it better. Not sure where to start? Here are some guides to help:

  • Australian Historic Newspapers ( – National Library of Australia
    Developed by the National Library of Australia, the Australian Historic Newspapers are part of Trove, a wider project providing access to journals, books, images, music, maps, archived websites and more. The National Library has digitized and OCR’d a vast collection of historical newspapers. We all know that OCRing is a bit of a hit and miss. It is in fixing up the errors that the crowdsourcing element of the project comes in. As some additional reading, Rose Holley, Manager of the Trove Discovery Service, wrote a great article on crowdsourcing which is available at

    Similar projects are also underway in the United States, with:

    • California Digital Newspaper Collection project ( undertaken by the Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research
    • Historic Cambridge Newspaper Collection (ttp:// undertaken by the Cambridge Public Library
    • California Digital Newspaper Collection project ( undertaken by the Center for Bibliographical Studies and Research
    • Historic Cambridge Newspaper Collection (ttp:// undertaken by the Cambridge Public Library
  • American Civil War ( ) – Library of Congress
    The Library of Congress has published just over 1200 unidentified civil war photos on Flickr. In the hope of removing some of the mystery surrounding the images users are able to comment on and tag photos.

There are a range of other crowdsource projects out there. To get an idea on what else is out there take a look at the crowdsourced list

Remember these are not just examples of fantastic crowdsourcing projects; they are also things that you can contribute to. So be sure to contribute!


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