Many Publics, Better Models, & Engaging Volunpeers

For her Nieman Lab fellowship, Melody Kramer interviewed me about my approach to volunteers and community with the Smithsonian Transcription Center.

In her resulting report “Putting the Public into Public Media,” Melody culls insights shared from contexts of many public(inter)facing projects. She puts forth alternative and manageable models for membership. For me, the take-away is to build from a simple but not-so-easy to achieve starting point: ask your public(s) to build with you, have a say in the product they consume, and work with your product to better suit their needs. Together, you can attain more meaningful, deeper, and resilient engagement.

Melody features my approach with the Smithsonian Transcription Center as a case study. In addition, she’s included some of my comments as a footnote. She asked me to detail “how” I build community and engage with our volunteers. Continue reading for my answers to Melody’s question: “How do you foster community?”

“I think I have fostered community by

  • being authentic in my engagement (using my voice not hiding behind the Smithsonian, and being enthusiastic because this stuff is pretty cool),
  • asking questions that furthered the dialogue (how did you hear about us? what did you think of that? what was most surprising? what would you like to do next?)
  • establishing a rhetorical approach that made it clear that we/I was learning at the same time as the volunteers
  • establishing a rhetorical approach that suggests there is ALWAYS more to the story and that this is a chance to make discoveries – and then by recognizing or acknowledging those discoveries
  • creating the hashtag #volunpeers to allow volunteers to leverage the structure of social media spaces to communicate with one another and with me/us – encouraging them to use it as well to ask for help or indicate a project needs review, etc
  • creating collaborative competitions, rather than leaderboarding: #7DayRevChall (7 Day review challenges) allowed people to contribute collectively to a goal, then metric and try to beat the group goal – and using daily updates to share progress. This also allows for skills acquisition and learning best practice for review AND addresses an issue we see frequently – folks love transcribing and pages languish waiting for review. Every 2 months, we draw attention to this
  • focusing on the process of transcribing and reviewing often over the volume of the product – and cultivating/encouraging patience from experienced volunteers in regard to “newbies”
  • letting volunteers speak to each other directly in spaces in which they already live and are comfortable (Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr) – and we have benefitted from volunteers who are welcoming and want to help each other complete projects
  • Also by engaging through those 3 social media networks (also instagram some and hopefully reddit soon), volunteers have the ability to “curate” and own their experience and the product they have created. My perception is that creates more in-depth brand engagement, as well – these volunteers list “digital volunteer for @TranscribeSI” or “#volunpeer for @TranscribeSI” in their bios
  • listening to the feedback and description of external interests from volunteers and gauging their excitement in subject matter – then actively courting the archives, museums, and libraries that have related material
  • Finally, actually integrating their feedback into site design when(ever) possible”



It seems to me that many of these steps start with two words: curiosity and sharing. In practice, these two words create a cycle of behavior – as you’re curious, you investigate. When you discover, you may want to share so others can learn. When others share, your interests are piqued and you become … more curious. Asking questions, discovering connections, solving challenges, and bringing together people – these all emerge as actions grounded in curiosity and sharing. When I understand that a volunteer has had a lightbulb moment with a project, I try to connect them and this experience to the Smithsonian group that has shared the project. Then staff and public alike are experiencing the moment of discovery – and learning from each other in the process. This often happens in our social media spaces, but I also do this one-on-one with feedback e-mails and questions from our volunteers.

Are you a community manager or are you a volunteer for an organization? How do these approaches relate to your experiences?


SI-Q: Making history by crowdsourcing & sharing knowledge

How can you help the Smithsonian make history? Just by volunteering and sharing what you know!

The Smithsonian Institution is rooted in the crowdsourcing tradition and there are more than 30 projects actively seeking your input right now (try these!). Also visit the Smithsonian Transcription Center and learn more about the activities and possibilities at the Smithsonian.

Listen in as Effie Kapsalis and I explain the ways the Smithsonian Institution invites information in and shares knowledge back out with the world.

Smithsonian Transcription Center: Growing as a Community (Blogpost)

The Smithsonian Transcription Center digital volunteers have grown into a community of volunpeers–collaborators dependent on the work and input of the group–in just over a year.

In this post for Smithsonian Institution Archives’ Bigger Picture blog, I explained a bit about the ways the volunpeers report they use the system and how the peer review process and “eyes per page” can be understand and assessed. I’ll share more about the ways volunpeers learn by doing and how the Transcription Center is a dynamic space in which the process is as important as the product. We continue to learn about our volunpeers’ needs and the ways we can make transcription better.

Active Audiences: SI Archives and Women in Science

Smithsonian Institution Archives audiences are actively solving mysteries surrounding Women in Science.

Over the last months, I have been privileged to learn first-hand the ways in which Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) is taking engagement with audiences to the next level.

By actively listening to quick-thinking audiences and continuing to expand articles about Women in Science on Wikipedia, SIA staff have been able to

  • identify previously unknown women in science and highlight arc-welding success,
  • learn more about women in research positions at the University of Chicago, and
  • bring attention to a record-setting pilot through the Wikipedia Did You Know? main page feature
Dora Dougherty Strother setting helicopter flight records
Dora Dougherty Strother setting helicopter flight records

Watch for more about #Groundbreakers – women who have made massive contributions to science and technology – every Wednesday through The Bigger Picture blog and connect with SIA on Facebook for more.

These are success stories from engagement and crowdsourcing and offer interesting take-aways for sustaining collaborative activities around cultural heritage collections.

Click through to read more in my post at The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives’ blog.

Working around the Shutdown

Millet studio work

Sharing opportunities to engage with Smithsonian collections and distribute knowledge during the U.S. government shutdown which closed to the public all federal institutions including the Smithsonian Institution and its facilities

On Tuesday, with the shutdown of the U.S. government, many of the greatest FREE opportunities to experience science, art, culture, and technology have CLOSED indefinitely. An extremely simplified version of events: without federal funding, the Smithsonian Institution buildings must close, services end, and federal staff face furlough. It should be noted that many national parks and other locations that share cultural heritage stories are also closed to visitors.

The Smithsonian’s current slogan is “seriously amazing” and it could not be more accurate as a description of the breadth and depth of events, research, and access to information. As with many large-scale institutions, there are controversies and gaps in representation – though work continues to address these issues while improving access to physical and digital Smithsonian Institution collections.

There's work to be done! U.S. Military Mail Mail - courtesy National Postal Museum
There’s work to be done! U.S. Military Mail Mail – courtesy National Postal Museum

In my fieldwork, most apparent in each exchange with staff, volunteers, and researchers in different units: every unit is engaged in passionate pursuit of its goals and energetically seeking to engage with its audience(s). These folks are advocates for learning and clearly agree on:

  • the primacy of the distribution of knowledge
  • the need to craft better and more dynamic experiences in person and remotely through digital spaces
  • their desire to collaborate and share their enthusiasm for their work and
  • the need to make collections more widely available (find ways around restrictions)

With such passionate stewards, it seems such a misfortune for visitors to Washington, D.C. (and NYC and affiliate locations) that opportunities for learning and exploration are not available…

Or are they?? The doors may be locked and lights turned off, but all this knowledge cannot be contained by physical barriers!


In the interim of government shutdown, let’s explore ways you can engage with Smithsonian Institution collections and materials, whether hosted by SI or other digital repositories.

Anacostia Neighborhood Museum Youth Classes hard at (art)work - courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives
Anacostia Neighborhood Museum Youth Classes hard at (art)work – courtesy Smithsonian Institution Archives

There are still plenty of opportunities to transcribe and review content at the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers Transcription Center – try your hand transcribing Carl Heinrich’s fieldnotes on butterflies or tackle John Reed Swanton’s detailed English-Alabama and Alabama-English vocabulary cards. You’ll find plenty more to do at the Transcription Center, especially reviewing fellow participants’ transcripts!

You can view truly astounding images on Flickr in albums and photostreams from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL), Encyclopedia of Life (EOL), and Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA).

If you want to help develop Smithsonian Institution knowledge AND view detailed images at the same time, perhaps adding machine tags to images in the EOL and BHL Flickr albums is up your alley. Here are the instructions – you are welcome to add machine tags or even tag as you would typically do on Flickr.

You can also to participate in a data mining research sprint in early February 2014 as a part of pioneering efforts to mine Encyclopedia of Life and the Biodiversity Heritage Library – and learn more about the free access to biodiversity resources. Download the new mobile app, M-EOL, on iTunes or Google Play; earn points as you roll the dice and travel across continents, dynamically mapping relationships between different plant and animal species.

There are on-going opportunities to help build and share knowledge in Wikipedia through Smithsonian collections. Find to-do lists for several museums and archives like SIA and Archives of American Art (AAA) and get editing!

You can explore Freer-Sackler Asian art exhibitions through their website or explore selections hosted by the Google Cultural Institute. Find more details about collections on view and held by the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden – there are so many pieces to admire (and analyze) in these listings!

Want to learn more about what’s happening in related spaces? Check out the weekly round-ups and Link Love posts at the blogs of different units, including Smithsonian Institution Archives Bigger Picture blog.

Education and outreach sites including the Smithsonian Latino Center and the apps and Google+ hangouts hosted by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center have regional, national, and cultural foci on intersections and daily experiences.

If you’ve got a head for researching more, consider exploring archives and collections with finding aids at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution Archives, the National Anthropological Archives (an AMAZING series of collections!), Anacostia Community Museum, and the Archives Center at the National Museum of American History.

You can also see rich interrelated content from Smithsonian on Tumblr – this is a fantastic chance to develop those webs of knowledge through relationships of cultural heritage, scientific, and artistic content. Check out Smithsonian, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Libraries, and the Smithsonian Latino Virtual Museum.

While the #shutdown is on-going, Smithsonian social media will not be populated with new information; now is the time to catch up on what you’ve missed!

Connect with Smithsonian Institution museums, archives, galleries and libraries here – from each unit’s presence on Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, and more. Keep up-to-date with any announcements or changes to open status at the the main Smithsonian Facebook page and @smithsonian on Twitter.

That’s merely a drop in the bucket of Smithsonian digital activities – there are so many opportunities to learn AND share the knowledge you’ve developed. If you have other suggestions for this list, such as a favorite app or Smithsonian online activity, please share your thoughts in the comments!

**Featured image for this post of Francis Davis Millet (1846-1912) at work in his studio, courtesy Archives of American Art