The Smithsonian Desperately Needs Volunteers To Help Digitize Records

Now you can do your civic duty in bed with a laptop.

The Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History. (photo via the Smithsonian)

The Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. (photo via the Smithsonian)

Looking for a way to give back to your nation in a way that doesn’t include paying too much on taxes or fighting in wars on the other side of the planet? Well, now there’s a way to do your duty to Uncle Sam in the era of slacktivism.

The Smithsonian is putting out an open call to the Americans of the Internet to help turn barely legible texts from the museum’s library into a pristine, digitally catalogued database. They’ve built a pretty slick in-browser app, and have worked out a system where anyone can come in and work on the transcriptions for as little or as much time as they want.

Good luck. (Photo via the Smithsonian)

Good luck. (Photo via the Smithsonian)

They’re not just putting the entire collection up for grabs — instead, archivists are beginning with a small collection of projects they think will appeal to different interest groups. Are you a language nerd? There’s an Alabama-English translation dictionary of Native American language that needs your attention. Animal lover? They’ve got 45,000 bees that need to be tagged so that researchers can use old wisdom to save the bees that are still alive.

For each document, multiple transcribers come into the browser to work on a page, and a Smithsonian expert comes in afterward to check the accuracy and mark the document as complete. They’ve already run the program in beta for a year, and they managed to rally 1,000 volunteers to transcribe 13,000 pages of material.

Those labels can be as small as 3mm tall. (Photo via the Smithsonian)

Those labels can be as small as 3mm tall. (Photo via the Smithsonian)

Digitization is radically changing how the Smithsonian does business. In addition to transcribing documents, the Smithsonian is making 3D scans and prints of relics so that they can keep multiple copies of physical objects. Recently, Native American tribes have asked for things like funerary objects so that they can bury them. When faced with the dilemma of losing a piece of history from the archives, the Smithsonian made 3D scans so they could keep a copy of the artifact before the original was buried. When the tribes saw what the Smithsonian had done, not only were they impressed, they started bringing forward their own artifacts for replication.

“To me, that’s where it’s all going,” Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough, who keeps a 3D printed copy of Lincoln’s death mask in his office, told Smithsonian Magazine. “It’ll take a while, but it makes things so accessible. It really brings history alive.”