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There are many ways in which you can help contribute towards a thriving digital cultural commons, primarily in the realm of helping to create digital copies of public domain texts, images and audio-visual media. The existence of such a commons of digital content plays a key role in enabling an ever-widening circle of people to make use of, have access to, and enjoy historical works which now belong to us all. Below, in no particular order, is a list in progress of some of the many projects out there in need of volunteers. If you’ve got some suggestions for others we might have missed then please do let us know!

Transcription Projects


The Transcribe Bentham Project – A double award winning project run by University College London aimed at transcribing the unpublished and largely unstudied manuscript papers of British philosopher, jurist, and social reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832). As the man himself said, ‘Many hands make light work. Many hands together make merry work’.

Distributed Proofreaders – The transcription project behind the brilliant Project Gutenberg, providing a web-based method to ease the conversion of Public Domain books into e-books. Volunteers compare scans of book pages with OCR (Optical Character Recognition) produced transcriptions, proofreading and correcting where necessary. Then transcribed text is then formatted and a post-processor carefully assembles the e-book and submits it to the Project Gutenberg archive.

Old Weather – Help scientists recover Arctic and worldwide weather observations made by United States ships since the mid-19th century by transcribing ships’ logs. These transcriptions will contribute to climate model projections and will improve our knowledge of past environmental conditions. Historians will use your work to track past ship movements and tell the stories of the people on board.

The California Digital Newspaper Collection – Contains over 400,000 pages of significant historical California newspapers published from 1846-1922, including the first California newspaper, the Californian, and the first daily California newspaper, the Daily Alta California. Every newspaper page in the CDNC is comprised of an image, and of text associated with that image. Logged in volunteers are encouraged to help correct the Optical Character Recognition (OCR) generated text.

Samuel Johnson Dictionary – A wonderful project begun in 2010, and run by Washington University graduate Brandi Besalke, which aims to create a digital and easily searchable version of the first edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. If you would like to help with the transcription efforts, either leave a comment in the site’s support page here, or email using the contact form. Transcribers will be given scans for five entries at a time (your choice or random).

The Papers of the War Department – An innovative digital editorial project which aims to make some 55,000 documents of the early U.S. War Department – which many long thought irretrievable after damage in a fire in 1800, but now reconstructed through a painstaking, multi-year research effort – available online to scholars, students, and the general public. Transcription by volunteers is vital to the effort.

What’s On the Menu? – A project of the wonderful New York Public Library Labs project focused on transcribing the library’s historical restaurant menus, dish by dish, so that they can be searched by what people were eating back in the day.

Wikisource – See section below.

Tagging and Organising


British Library – At the end of 2013 the British Library put digitisations of more than a million images from public domain books on Flickr. They need your help to organise this huge pool by tagging the images.

Flickr: The Commons – A great resource of material with “no known copyright restrictions” contributed by a vast array of participating institutions from all over the world. They need your help in tagging and adding any other info or stories relating to the images.

Digitisation


Internet Archive – A momentous project which houses the majority of digitised works we feature on The Public Domain Review. They need help with all manner of digitisation work, including the scanning of books and digitising VHS tapes, as well as with their events if you happen to be in the San Francisco area.

Wikisource – See section below.

Wikimedia Foundation Projects (e.g. Wikipedia, Wikisource)


Wikisource – An online library of free-content texts maintained by a community of more than 1 million registered users. The main help they need is “proofreading”, which involves transcribing digitised pages from books and validating other people’s transcriptions. Check out their Proofread of the Month series for a good place to start. For other ways to help out the project, including translating, check out their general Community Portal.

Wikipedia – The “collaboratively edited, multilingual, free Internet encyclopaedia” which most of us have used at some point, if not on a daily basis. Check out their Community Portal for ways in which you might help out, including editing, creating and adding images to articles, all utilising public domain works.

Wikimedia Commons – Help upload content to and organise the huge online repository of free-use images, sound, and other media files.

…and, of course, last but not least, The Public Domain Review!


There’s all sorts of ways you can help us out with our work here which, directly or indirectly, helps to support a digital cultural commons. Here’s a few:

  • finding interesting works for us to feature
  • short transcription of scanned pages which we’d like to feature in plain text form
  • technical help with the creation of new tools and apps based on our collections
  • translation into English of as-of-yet untranslated public domain texts (or, indeed, English texts into other languages)
  • digitising personal collections of public domain material
And a whole host of other things that we don’t know yet are even possible. Get in touch on [email protected] to share your ideas.

  • montcalm0

    Thanks for writing this – this is fantastic.

    A few more ideas:

    National Archive: They have a great citizen archivist program that allows people to improve their holdings through tagging, editing articles, and even transcribing weather data from arctic ship logs!: http://www.archives.gov/citizen-archivist/ They are also in the process of building an innovation hub at the Archives itself to let people collaborate to do new things with their holdings (this is in partnership with Wikimedia DC, so it’s very cool!): http://blogs.archives.gov/innovation/2014/01/02/innovation-hub-launches-with-wikimedia-d-c-annual-meeting/

    LocalWiki: (full disclosure, this is a project I work on). LocalWiki provides community-based wikis that let people add any kind of information about the places where they live. It provides a great way for people to use digitized assets to create new histories, narratives, and do all kinds of unexpected things with openly-available materials. For example, in my city (Oakland), people have created over 400 entries about local history (including important histories of marginalized communities, including chicano and black communities) and just recently won an award from the local historical society for their work: http://oaklandwiki.org/tags/history

    Europeana: They don’t seem to have a citizen participation element at the moment, but they do have a network: http://pro.europeana.eu/web/guest/network

    Unglue.it: Help liberate books: https://unglue.it/

    Contribute to other open efforts: Doing things like improving OpenStreetMap helps the whole ecosystem because it enables new kinds of things to be made with open cultural works.

    If you’re a technical person, you can create new things making use of the large amounts of content and data that are already open.

    Thinking about the future…this discussion has mostly focused on works that already exist, but new histories and cultural works get created every day. Helping build an open internet, helping other people see the importance of contributing their content to open platforms, strengthening and supporting open platforms, lobbying cultural institutions in your area (almost every community has a local historical archive and local historical society) to digitize materials, starting an Open Knowledge Foundation chapter, licensing your own content liberally (eg: http://i-am-cc.org/), using open educational resources (https://creativecommons.org/tag/open-educational-resources), and otherwise being an openness activist and getting more people involved in the openness movement are all a part of growing the digital cultural commons.

  • Hanna Clutterbuck

    You can also help get public domain books out into the audiosphere by volunteering to read at Librivox: http://librivox.org/ (Full disclosure: I’m a volunteer.) You can sign up for chapters, a full work, a group reading of a play, pretty much whatever you like. And all languages are welcome!