Just a few weeks ago it was National Volunteers Week. For us here at the Australian Museum and indeed for many museums around the world, our highly motivated and enthusiastic volunteers make it possible to do so much more with our limited resources. With this in mind I wanted to talk about one of the Museum’s volunteer programs that is taking our collections further into the 21st Century and providing researchers and enthusiasts around the world with access to our collections.

One of my most vivid memories of childhood is the day that my neighbour’s mother took a few of us local kids to the cinema to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. I remember that the cinema had themed the entrance to the theatre to be a great big skull and the ticket collectors stood in its mouth as you entered into what looked like a huge cave. I fell in complete and enduring love with Indiana Jones and his life, gallivanting all over the world and it started part of my fascination with expeditions and collecting things.

I’ve always wondered what it must be like to fling oneself out into the world with the idea of bringing some of it back, Indiana Jones style.

Most of us can’t really run off to some far flung corner of the world to collect specimens of snails, or butterflies. We are mostly concerned with our own work and besides, I get claustrophobic in strange caves. But recently I was introduced to the Biodiversity Volunteer Portal, developed by the Australian Museum and the Atlas of Living Australia, which offers anyone the opportunity to be a virtual Indiana. You can participate in actual museum work, transcribing specimen information as part of a Virtual Expedition team. That information will then become part of a digital archive of specimens publicly available to researchers from all over the world.

Registering on the website is very easy and takes just a few minutes. Once you’re in, you can start contributing immediately. Choose a virtual expedition you like the sound of, you might choose to transcribe a Smithsonian butterfly collection with specimens from places like Ecuador or an Australian Museum Robber Fly collection with images of delicate and beautiful Robber Flies from all over Australia or perhaps the field diaries from Edgar Waite’s travels to Antarctica.

So what does it involve specifically? Within the bowels of museums around the world are many millions of specimens with information about when they were collected, where and by whom as well as a host of other information. This information, which is usually hand written on a tiny label , is very important to researchers using the collections but also is often inaccessible since it is locked away in great storerooms within the individual museums. The Biodiversity Volunteer Portal enables volunteers to virtually visit the collections and view and transcribe text on the labels. The data they transcribe is entered into a central and globally accessible database without needing to be physically in the collections.

Each institution participating in the program provides high resolution photographs of the specimens/items to be transcribed, alongside the collection information and volunteers, like you and me, transcribe the label information into a user friendly web form which is automatically captured into a database. That information is then checked and it becomes the official digital entry for the specimen.

You might not start out as an Indiana Jones but the more records you transcribe, the more prestigious the title afforded to you. Start as a Technical Officer and work your way up to Expedition Leader. So if you’re like me and you spend most of your time in locations with toilets really close by, or if your expedition ends when the rat-infested cave begins the Biodiversity Volunteer Portal is looking for people just like you.