Crowd-sourcing then and now

The Smithsonian Institution apparently has a long history of crowd-sourcing. David Alan Grier reports in his podcast “The Confident and the Curious” that in the 1850s, the original weather observers collected data for the US Navy. The volunteers sent the data they had gathered with scientific instruments four times a day to the Central Weather Office located in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. Still today, the Smithsonian makes use of crowd-sourcing to enhance accessibility to their vast collections. Through Flickr, a research fellow at the National Zoo gets help from people in cataloging photographs from wildlife locations.

With the rise of user participation on the web, traditional institutions can no longer claim to have an authoritative view on any given subject. Projects like Linux, Firefox, Wikipedia, OpenLibrary or LibraryThing and professions like journalism testify to this fundamental change. Incidentally, OpenLibrary is thinking about putting out a call for volunteers to help correct bad OCR by transcribing old handwriting.

So what is at the core of crowd-sourcing? People have to be willing to share what they know for a project they perceive as furthering the common good. The mixture of points of view and experience provide a more diverse outlook on the project or topic at hand. Crowd-sourcing entails relinquishing a bit of control, which might be a big step (both psychologically and politically) for some institutions. Could crowd-sourcing be applied to library cataloging too? Libraries could involve experts in certain fields for help with cataloging specific collections that might not have been tackled due to various reasons. This is but one example of how libraries could open themselves to the “wisdom of crowds”.


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