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Making library collections truly accessible through digitally enabled crowdsourcing

Above photo: (L-R) Jenna Bain, Digital Projects Leader; Louise Prichard, Digital Channels Leader; Robin Phua, Director Digital Experience and Chief Information Officer at the State Library of NSW and team, receiving the RoE award from Mohit Sagar, Managing Director & Editor-In-Chief, OpenGov Asia

Even in a world where apparently limitless information is available to us at the click of a mouse, public libraries continue to be indispensable repositories of nations’ memories, often holding valuable collections of original audio/ visual/ textual material. The challenge is to leverage the digital tools available today to make those collections truly accessible to a wider audience around the world.

That is exactly what the State Library of NSW (the “Library”) is striving to do and it has seen significant success till date with two of its innovative tools, Transcript and Amplify. OpenGov recognised the Library’s achievements through its Recognition of Excellence (RoE) series in Sydney recently. 

Both tools use crowdsourcing to make the Library’s treasures easily accessible. The Transcript Tool allows people to transcribe the text of original manuscripts in the State Library collections. Amplify does the same for audio collections.

Transcribing original documents helps make collections accessible. Old handwriting is hard to understand for humans, computers have an even harder time. A digital transcript allows researchers and interested people to search the whole document for names, places or subjects of interest that could not be done without it.

Screenshot from the Library's Transcript platform

Similarly, the Library has digitised more than 10,000 hours of sound recordings but in order to make them truly accessible, searchable and valuable, each audio file also needs a corresponding transcript.

Manual transcription is a costly and time-consuming undertaking, something which the Library cannot accomplish on its own. Speech-to-text technologies could provide part of the answer and recent advances in the area have enabled great progress in computer-generated transcripts. But while the accuracy of these transcripts is higher than ever before, they still tend to be error-prone. Hence, human editing is still essential.

Through Amplify, the community joins in correcting the Library’s computer-generated transcripts. They can listen to the audio collections and check the transcript, if they spot an error, they click on the line with the mistake, make the correction and move on.

Screenshot from the Library's Amplify platform

The Digital Projects Team adapted Amplify from the New York City Public Library Lab’s updated open-source based Transcript Editor and customised it to the business requirements of the State Library. One of the favourite features of Amplify is that a user is not required to create an account to start transcribing.

We submitted a list of questions to the Library as part of the RoE process. Below are the answers received.

How has the Transcript Tool and Amplify platforms transformed people’s levels of engagement and participation with the Library?

Both the Transcript Tool and Amplify deliver digitised content from the Library’s vast collections in a unique way, allowing our clients to engage with our material meaningfully for research or general interest, as well as contribute to improving the Library’s collections by assisting in the correction of transcripts and data. Providing online access to high quality digitised files allows users to interrogate the fine detail of items from our collections on site at the Library or from the comfort of their own homes. By developing interactive platforms like the Transcript Tool and Amplify, we have been able to further enrich this experience by providing the opportunity for people to help us literally write the history of New South Wales.

Powered by this innovative use of technology, we have been able to bring Library patrons of all ages together through common interests and add value to our collections by tapping into the passion and expertise of researchers from all over the world. 

We have also been able to make connections with certain communities that we may not otherwise have had the opportunity to engage with, such as unlocking local studies collections for residents of regional towns across NSW and providing access to Indigenous language materials from our collections to their traditional owners.

How have the library staff and volunteers benefitted from the use of the Transcript Tool and Amplify platforms?

One of the original drivers in developing both the Transcript Tool and Amplify was to establish a platform that could tap into the enthusiasm and skill of the ‘crowd’ to undertake important work that Library staff don’t always have the capacity to achieve on their own.

By providing an opportunity for volunteers to get involved in these projects, not only have we been able to make significant progress in transcribing and describing important collections from the Library’s archive, we have also created an environment of collaboration for our patrons to connect more meaningfully with our content, as well as the Library itself. This has also meant we’ve had the opportunity to build ongoing relationships with our corpus of volunteers and in turn establish a greater understanding of their interests, habits and motivations for supporting us as an organisation.

Having volunteers transcribe our collection and then making this data available for reuse ultimately powers search across these materials, enabling deep research and interrogation and a greater understanding of NSW cultural heritage. This invaluable contribution made by our digital volunteers means that our goal of ensuring all Library collections will be accessible for everyone to enjoy is continually closer to being realised - a result which will provide a lasting benefit to this and future generations of researchers, explorers and inquisitors.

Are there are plans to develop the Transcript Tool and Amplify platforms further?

The Library frequently reviews its various online platforms and tools to ensure we are delivering a consistent and optimised user experience. Both the Transcript Tool and Amplify are currently in active development to improve existing functionality and introduce new features based on user feedback and an ever-changing technological landscape. We are always thinking of ways to make our tools better for end users and for staff, as well exploring different strategies for creating smart and scalable solutions that can shift with growing engagement and demand. We have some exciting plans in the works to get even more value out of these interactive platforms in the future.

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