100,000 transcriptions and a roomful of molluscs

DigiVol Project Officer Rhiannon Stephens with a drawer of paper nautiluses in the Malacology collection.

Image: Melissa Graf
© Australian Museum

DigiVol is a collaboration between the Australian Museum and the Atlas of Living Australia that was, initially, an experimental foray into crowdsourcing. The notion that there were online volunteers willing to help natural history collections capture their data seemed rather farfetched back then.

It was definitely a risk: crowdsourcing was in its infancy and there were no other museums providing online volunteers with an opportunity to help digitise their natural history collections. But now, DigiVol has not only become a means for us to tackle the enormous task of digitising our collections, but institutions like the Smithsonian, New York Botanic Gardens and Kew Gardens have chosen DigiVol to host their own virtual expeditions to digitise their collections.

As further proof of our success, we recently recorded these two milestones.

1) 100,000 transcriptions!

Our volunteers at DigiVol Online have just completed 100,000 transcription tasks. This a monumental contribution to digitising the collections of the world’s Museums and Herbaria. Tasks range from specimen labels with just a name, date and location to double page diary entries with many hundreds of words.

Different volunteers enjoy different tasks, with some of them becoming obsessed with the lives of the diary writers, others with transcribing insect labels. All of their efforts are captured in the DigiVol Honour Board where they aspire to be a Weekly Wonder, Monthly Maestro or DigiVol Legend by transcribing the most tasks weekly, monthly and overall.

The individual contributions by some of our volunteers is incredible, with our most prolific volunteers having completed over 10000 tasks and the leader, Megan, over 20000, many of those being diary pages. Megan is now surely the world’s foremost expert on the life of Edgar Waite, a prominent Curator from the Australian Museum in the late 1800’s, simply through transcribing and validating his diary on DigiVol.

2) A roomful of molluscs

Since its inception three years ago, DigiVol Lab volunteers have been taking photographs of museum specimens and their labels. One of the very large Australian Museum collections is Malacology, and after two years and 70,000 images, an entire roomful of its dry collection has been completed.

Volunteers have been involved every step of the way in the challenges and travails that come with capturing information into a digital form from a source that was recorded long before computers and google were even a twinkle in the eye of the most fanciful science fiction writers.

In a recent speech to volunteers and staff who celebrated this event, Kim McKay, Director and CEO of the Australian Museum, acknowledged the valuable role of museum volunteers who support the work done by collection staff and research scientists.

Mimachlamys asperrima - an image taken by a volunteer in the DigiVol project

Mimachlamys asperrima - an image taken by a volunteer in the DigiVol project.

Image: Catherine Curran
© Australian Museum

A new frontier for museum volunteers

Museums have a long history of engaging volunteers in helping them with a host of important in-house activities. DigiVol has taken that relationship between the Museum and volunteers to a new level by creating a community around the specific task of digitising the Museum collections.

Online, there are tutorials and help pages to get you going, as well as a gamification aspect in which volunteers become part of an expedition team, their role defined by how many tasks they have competed. The volunteer who has transcribed the most gets to choose from a range of avatars as the Expedition Leader, the other transcribers being made Scientists, Collection Managers or Technical Officers.

Offline, volunteers in our DigiVol Lab undertake an orientation and training program which prepares them for handling specimens and capturing images and data about the often fragile collections. DigiVol Lab members especially like the occasional behind-the-scenes tours of the Museum collections where staff regale the volunteers with fascinating and educational stories and lessons from over 150 years of collecting.

Whether volunteers are involved in DigiVol Online or DigiVol Lab we get wonderful feedback about how they enjoy the sense of community they derive from such a worthwhile activity with other likeminded volunteers. They feel like they are making a difference and contributing to the store of knowledge about our amazing biodiversity and the early scientists who sought to record it.

I’m pleased to report that the feeling is more than mutual, every staff member that interacts with the volunteers has been enriched through sharing of a personal story, exchanging learnings or partaking in a morning tea where homemade cakes and home grown fruits are shared amongst friends.