The University of Alabama

Crowdsourcing History with UA Libraries

Photo from UA Libraries’ crowdsourcing project: Dr. David Mathews with unidentified man and woman

Photo from UA Libraries’ crowdsourcing project: Dr. David Mathews with unidentified man and woman

In the photo collection the images are often faded, sometimes blurry, faces peering into the camera or gazing to the side at something no one else can see. The descriptive information is piecemeal: football player?; unidentified man; student with analog computer. Other images have no information at all.

1950s women in front of Gorgas

1950s women in front of Gorgas

In another collection are letters and documents, complete with misspellings, abbreviations and creases from being folded in envelopes for decades. The old-fashioned cursive handwriting, all swoops and flourishes, is difficult to decipher. Yet these documents and letters, like the photographs, are a treasure of information for genealogists, historians, and researchers from a swath of other fields.

Puzzles like these that could take such researchers a lifetime to solve (Who is in this picture? What Civil War battle does this diary mention?) can be answered quickly with crowdsourcing.

Crowdsourcing is a process that allows many users, working at their own time and pace, to help solve a time-consuming and difficult problem. The University Libraries recently launched two crowdsourcing projects to allow users to tag or transcribe materials from their collections.

unidentified man

unidentified man

The University Libraries’ “Tag It” project (tagit.lib.ua.edu) allows users from any computer around the world to add valuable information to photograph collections. Working from the comfort of their own computers or mobile devices, users tag photographs, identifying people, places and things that were not recorded when the image was collected and not available when it was digitized.

“Tagging is more than identifying people in the photos,” said Jason Battles, associate dean for library technology planning and policy. “Perhaps someone can identify a time period by noticing the type of auto or building in the picture. For example, the user could share that a photo dated 1963 actually had to be later than that because a building in the picture wasn’t built until 1969.”

What happens if a picture is tagged with conflicting information? “The Libraries’ staff will then work to determine which tags are accurate,” Battle said, adding, “But so far that has not been an issue, and should not discourage users from sharing their knowledge.”

possible football player

possible football player

Tags users provide will be added to Acumen, the digital repository that allows users to search collections. Researchers can find material by using search terms from the tags. The more users tag, the richer the experience for all.

The other crowdsourcing project, “Transcription” (transcribe.lib.ua.edu), allows users to decipher documents. Handwritten documents offer a unique challenge for users and researchers. Handwriting, especially from the 19th century or earlier, can be very difficult to decipher. With this transcription project, users can add valuable information to these documents by determining just what is written. These transcriptions support full-text keyword searching.

Why is this so valuable to researchers? “The original documents can’t be keyword searched,” Battles said. “The researcher would have to read through an entire letter or diary looking for information. But with the full-text keyword search in the transcription, a researcher can know immediately which documents are relevant. It saves countless hours.”