Crowdsourcing Content at the JWA

Crowdsourcing can been seen as a redefinition of outsourcing, or “the act of a company or institution taking a function once performed by employees and outsourcing it to an undefined (and generally large) network of people in the form of an open call” [Oomen, Johan & Lora Aroyo (2011) “Crowdsourcing in the Cultural Heritage Domain: Opportunities and Challenges”, C&T’11, 29 June-2 July 2011, QUT, Brisbane, Australia: http://dl.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=2103373%5D. Crowdsourcing is a growing way to both elicit community participation (falling primarily under the community watch and participation section of the Digital Curation Centre’s Curation Lifecycle model), and to complete vast projects that overwhelm staff resources (allowing for community members to contribute to various other portions of the DCC’s lifecycle model).

The JWA utilizes crowdsourcing on several of its projects, including: Jewish Women On the Map, This Week in History, and We Remember.

The “On the Map” project attempts to compile a map of sites, buildings, and public art related to Jewish women – as the JWA’s website notes, “like other under-represented groups, Jewish women have left few lasting marks on the American landscape.” By allowing users to add locations (and photos, if they wish), the JWA is able to provide access to physical sites that have communal meaning, and share that meaning with viewers from around the globe.

Screenshot of “On the Map”, April 25, 2012.

“This Week in History” is a calendar of events related to Jewish women. Calendar events may be submitted by users, or written by staff members, and feature the ability to comment on individual entries. Reading like a combination of oral history and personal testimonials, “We Remember” is a collection of memorials to deceased Jewish women – the JWA provides a list of guidelines and tips to help users contribute to this unique feature. In addition to these current features, the JWA is fundraising for project to add a “people’s compendium” to Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia – the people’s compendium would add a component similar to Wikipedia to the Encyclopedia, which would allow users to add their own content. Each entry currently includes a comment section, designed to allow users to submit their thoughts, but also point out any errors within entries.

There are several challenges to crowdsourcing as a tool used by cultural heritage sites. One issue is that of expertise – how do you know that the information users are inputting is correct? How does an institution ensure an adequate amount of community input and participation? An email exchange with Ari Davidow, the JWA’s Director of Online Strategy, shed some light on how the JWA deals with the pitfalls inherent in crowdsourcing: “Yes, we always worry that no one will contribute, and indeed, without ongoing advertising (usually in the form of tweets, facebook updates, e-letters, etc.) anything on the web vanishes quickly. People are also more likely to contribute when/if their friends have done so, so much work to build community around specific projects. We try to be clear that user-generated content may not be accurate and, especially, that nobody is vetting such content.” In some respects, a virtual archive may be easier to adapt to the challenges of crowdsourcing – since the JWA has always existed online, rather than in a physical repository, gathering a virtual community was a challenge being met head-on, rather than something the institution had to decide to invest resources in. As Ari mentions, the JWA attempts to keep their users informed that, since user-generated content is not being checked over by the staff, errors may appear. On the website’s FAQ, there is a section that directs users to email the JWA, or comment directly on the section of the site that is incorrect, in order to have that error fixed.

As Johan Oomen and Lora Aroya state in their “Crowdsourcing in the Cultural Heritage Domain: Opportunities and Challenges,” while crowdsourcing may not be perfect, it “as the potential to help build a more open, connected, and smart cultural heritage with involved consumers and providers…” Getting users involved and benefitting from their knowledge and passion allows a cultural heritage organization to not only enrich their own collections, but to also build and maintain a devoted user base that will potentially visit the site multiple times, donate funds, and encourage other community members to get involved as well. Given these objectives and possibilities, crowdsourced content appears to be a perfect fit for the JWA.

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About Caitlin Christian-Lamb

Caitlin Christian-Lamb is the Associate Archivist of Davidson College, a small liberal arts college in North Carolina. She also serves on the Society of American Archivists' Standards Committee, and as a Review Editor for dh+lib (ALA/ACRL). View all posts by Caitlin Christian-Lamb

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