RunCoCo: If You Build It, They Will Scan: Oxford University’s Exploration of Community Collections

RunCoCo offers advice, training and support for crowdsourcing, public engagement and impact and is being established as an advisory group within Academic IT Services. It all started with community collections online, read about our work here:

Extract from: If You Build It, They Will Scan: Oxford University’s Exploration of Community Collections in Educause Quarterly
Authors: Stuart D. Lee and Kate Lindsay (2009)

In 2009 the University of Oxford ran a groundbreaking digitization project focused on getting members of the public to digitally capture, submit, catalogue, and assign usage rights to material they personally held to do with the First World War. The results demonstrated the potential of this approach to save money compared with traditional digitization projects. It also revealed that community collections could capture a wealth of hitherto undiscovered material held in private hands.

Mass Amateur Digitization and Mobilizing the Public

In 2008 the NPD Group’s Household Penetration Study: Ownership Landscape 2008 reported that nearly 75 percent of all U.S. households owned at least one digital camera. These ranged from compact point-and-shoot cameras to full digital single lens reflex (DSLR) cameras. Add to this figure the number of mobile phones with cameras and the public availability of flat-bed scanners or combination scanners/photocopiers/printers, and it would not be a wild claim to say that in North America, Western Europe, and other developed countries the ability to digitize visual material is almost ubiquitous. Or, to put it another way, an extraordinary resource is just waiting to be exploited – namely, mass amateur digitization. The question is how to tap into this resource for the benefit of research and teaching.

The concept of mobilizing large cohorts of volunteers to assist in public projects is not new:

  • In an area to the south of Oxford lie the remains of a volunteer project led by John Ruskin and his undergraduate “Hinksey diggers” to build a causeway linking the city with the nearby town of Abingdon.
  • In the late 1930s the mass observation movement in the U.K. used an army of volunteers across the country to record everyday life, conversations, and behaviors of the average Briton through diaries, correspondences, and questionnaires.
  • In more recent times came public participation in screen saver projects such as the LifeSaver initiative, which used a grid of personal computers to analyze data related to cancer. Indeed, the whole Web 2.0 phenomenon relies on voluntary users creating content.

So are institutions looking to create digital archives missing a trick here? Could they build on the potential for voluntary projects and the clear willingness of the public to assist in projects in which they feel some form of investment, and take advantage of the widespread availability of domestic digitization equipment? Or, to put it another way, could one create a “community collection” whereby members of the public generate the digital content? More importantly, can individual institutions take on such initiatives?

Read the full article online at:

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