From crowdsourcing to digitally-enabled participation: the state of the art in collaboration, access, and inclusion for cultural heritage institutions

Lead Research Organisation: British Library The
Department Name: Digital Scholarship


Crowdsourcing has helped to provide a framework for online participation with, and around, cultural heritage collections for several years. As more cultural institutions ask members of the public to undertake tasks such as transcription, classification and description of digitised collections, expectations about the ability of these tasks to engage audiences more deeply with cultural heritage are rising. Co-creation and developing new models of ownership and authorship present significant challenges for institutions used to framing interactions with collections on their own terms. As crowdsourcing moves from an experimental activity to something that requires closer and more systematic integration with physical and other online outreach activities, institutions are grappling with the associated challenges to their organisational practices.

This project brings together practitioners and researchers representing a range of approaches to digitally-enabled participation in cultural heritage to write a book in a week through a 'book sprint'. In the spirit of digitally-enabled participation, the book will not be considered 'final' until it has been through a period of public comment. The book will be freely available as an open access publication. The project will also assemble leaders in the field for a workshop that captures expert views on the most pressing issues to address through future funding calls, with the results published in a white paper written by the PI and Co-Is.

This project builds on the expertise of three innovators in the field, each at a world-leading institution, who are setting the standards for crowdsourcing and digitally-enabled participation around cultural heritage collections in the UK and US. We have invited a range of expert practitioners and researchers from different fields to participate in our events and publications, enhancing our ability to address challenges from working with marginalised and disenfranchised communities to enhancing access across multiple channels and challenging organisational practice.

In collecting, digesting and sharing best practice in crowdsourcing and digitally-enabled participation, this project will help maximise the value of existing platforms and activities. The support network created through participation in the book sprint, workshop and online discussion will help organisations stay audience-focused as they respond to technical and cultural changes in the field.

This project primarily addresses the 'digitally-enabled participation' theme of this call, but it also touches on Machine Learning and AI and the automatic creation of data based on collections. The focus of the cross-cutting theme 'Contemporary challenges addressed by digital tools and methods' on ethical frameworks to address inequalities in digital engagement, sustaining relationships and developing activities with marginalised groups and cooperative working models are particularly important for this project. Questions of building digital capacity and supporting leaders of digital transformation from the 'Leadership and skills development in digital scholarship' theme are also crucial to the long-term viability of this field.

Planned Impact

This project will frame the current state of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage institutions by convening a group of experts to discuss best practices for designing, managing and integrating crowdsourcing activities, and to look ahead to future challenges and unresolved issues that could be addressed by longer-term collaborations.

It will directly impact crowdsourcing practitioners who work in cultural institutions, as well as those who wish to gain experience with crowdsourcing. By helping those designing and running crowdsourcing and digital engagement projects to maximise the value of their efforts and reduce barriers to participation, this project will help both cultural heritage practitioners and the publics they seek to engage.

The impact on participants in crowdsourcing and digital engagement projects will be transformative, as this work seeks to not only ensure that the publics engaged in this type of project are not exploited, but indeed that they are seen as collaborators on high-quality outcomes. The public will be directly engaged with our research outputs, with participants in crowdsourcing projects encouraged to read and comment on the draft book. This will improve the quality of the final publication, and ensure that participant needs are addressed.

Finally, this work will impact stakeholders at institutions participating in crowdsourcing and digital engagement projects, including colleagues in collections management, copyright and licencing, metadata standards, learning and public engagement.

The listed book sprint attendees are extremely well-suited to deliver this impact as each links a considerable networks of experts in digitally-enabled participation as well as extensive volunteer communities on popular projects into the network. Committed participants have helped to create crowdsourcing projects such as By the People (, the Colored Conventions Project (, LibCrowds (, MicroPasts ( and Zooniverse ( These projects have cumulatively engaged with more than 2.5 million volunteers from around the world.

We will disseminate findings in a number of ways: 1) Through knowledge exchange and skills development among the PI, Co-Is, and other attendees at the book sprint; wider engagement of sprint attendees with those providing feedback on the first book draft; and with additional attendees of the follow-up workshop, including those joining remotely. 2) Through the outputs generated from the two events: an open access book and a white paper on priority areas for future research grants. 3) Through a newly-catalysed community of practice that will ensure that the impact of this effort will continue in the long term.

Each method above will be impactful in its own right. The book will provide accessible and practical insights into innovative and effective practice. The follow-up workshop will produce a white paper about the futures of crowdsourcing and digitally-enabled participation. The network will create opportunities for collaborative bids for further funding to address the issues identified through this project. We believe that, once all of the above activities and output are completed, the result will be increased efficiency of public services, and enhanced quality of experience for participants.

We will measure impact in a number of ways, including the successful production of a book draft at the end of the week-long book sprint; the number and quality of comments on the first edition of the book, and the number of comments included in the edits for the second edition; book downloads and sales; white paper downloads and views; and the number of conference papers and blog posts from individual participants.

The timelines and methods for delivering this impact are discussed in the 'Pathways to Impact' attachment.


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