Having worked in three different heritage institutions with three very different approaches to volunteering, I wanted to learn how other archival institutions approach working with volunteers. Last year at the University of Amsterdam I undertook a course in which we addressed each of the core archival practices and considered if there might be a more effective way of conducting these tasks in a digital age. As such, when it came time to write my thesis, I decided to look at how archival institutions interact with volunteers and to consider if this could be conducted more effectively using technology, specifically crowdsourcing.
In order to assess the current situation, I conducted a survey of archives both in the UK and the Netherlands. Clearly this is a topic of interest, as I received 84 responses from the UK, ten from the Netherlands, and one each from the US, Spain, and Ireland. 44% of respondents represented institutions that employ fewer than five staff, while another 25% were from institutions with over twenty paid employees, and they represented a wide range of collections. The variety of institutions that responded shows that volunteers are being engaged across the archival sector and highlights the need for studies such as this one, to ensure they are being engaged efficiently and effectively.
It was clear from the survey results that archival institutions gain many benefits from working with volunteers. 77 respondents noted that volunteers helped to complete projects that “we wouldn’t have managed otherwise.” The “knowledge and expertise” and “community links” that volunteers bring were also common themes. This is not to say that working with volunteers is easy. One respondent wrote: “It is time consuming to use volunteers…Sometimes you are busy, but you can’t be just ‘busy’ always, you must sit and drink a tea with them and talk about them and their stuff too.” This view was shared by 52 respondents, while 48 found that a lack of physical resources prevented them from being able to engage as many volunteers as they would like.
As such, over half of the institutions surveyed employed fewer than ten onsite volunteers, limiting the work they complete. Both of these problems could be alleviated by working with crowdsourced volunteers, who require less hands-on management and can work from their own homes. However, just 12 of the 97 respondents worked with crowdsourced volunteers. The average number of crowdsourced volunteers they employed was 130, allowing for far bigger projects to be undertaken.
According to the literature, the tasks most easily given to crowdsourced volunteers are cataloguing, indexing or transcription projects. This is backed up by my survey results. Three-quarters of crowdsourced volunteers were working on transcription, while two-thirds were involved in cataloguing or indexing. However, these were also the most popular tasks given to onsite volunteers: nearly 86% of onsite volunteers were involved in cataloguing or indexing projects, while 46% were involved in transcribing archival records. The main reason for not employing crowdsourced volunteers was that it had simply never been considered. However, with a little planning, tasks like this could be carried out by remote volunteers, allowing onsite volunteers to focus on other tasks that cannot be carried out remotely, such as repacking or preservation work.
When working with onsite volunteers, 76% of institutions employed a paid member of staff who was expected to manage volunteers as part of their role, with these volunteer managers spending an average of 8.86 hours a week engaging with volunteers. In theory, this number should be lower for crowdsourced volunteers. While preparing the project can be time-consuming, once the project is running it should require little staff input. However, my survey results suggest that this is not the case. On average, staff working with crowdsourced volunteers spent an average of 10.9 hours engaging with volunteers, with two separate respondents reporting that this was a full-time job.
While this result was unexpected, it is explainable by other answers given by these respondents. In short, crowdsourced volunteers are being treated as onsite volunteers. When asked about training, a quarter of the organisations working with crowdsourced volunteers expected remote volunteers to receive training onsite, while nearly half carried out training exclusively via email and phone calls. Naturally, this is time-consuming for paid staff as they are carrying out one-to-one training with potentially hundreds of volunteers. However, those respondents who reported devoting fewer hours to working with crowdsourced volunteers recorded that they have “extensive instructions manuals” or “online seminars” that train volunteers, with staff only stepping in when problems arise. Similarly, those who found working with crowdsourced volunteers the most time-consuming all had a paid member of staff check and import all the volunteers’ work manually.
One of the advantages of working online is that the same task can be given to multiple people, and the results can be collated by software, such as Transkribus or Recaptcha. By using such tools, paid staff only need to carry out sporadic spot-checks rather than checking every piece of work, thus saving valuable time.
Working with crowdsourced volunteers could be greatly beneficial to archival institutions, but in order for this to happen, they need to recognise the differences between crowdsourcing and onsite volunteers. Providing online training and collaborative checking will allow paid staff to concentrate on other tasks, while still working with volunteers to complete large projects that would not be possible otherwise.
Much work that is currently being carried out by onsite volunteers could also be given to remote volunteers. This is not to say there is not still a place for onsite volunteers. There are some tasks that require the volunteer to be physically present, such as repackaging or preservation work. Equally, multiple lone archivists noted the companionship and new ideas that volunteers brought to their work. However, the work of archival institutions can be augmented by crowdsourced volunteers, and it is something that I would urge archival institutions working with volunteers to consider.
This is only a very short summary of my results. If you would like more detail, please email email@example.com. All feedback and comments are gratefully received.
Rosie Denton, Master’s student at the University of Amsterdam