Civil War crowdsourcing project goes viral

Woo, hoo! We’ve been slashdotted.

This is when a popular website (in this case, Reddit.com, an enormous online community where contributors share web content that others may find interesting, enlightening, etc.) links to a smaller site (in this case, our Civil War Diaries transcription project) causing a huge influx of web traffic that overwhelms the site.

Despite the temporary collateral damage caused to the rest of the Iowa Digital Library, we love that the site is getting so much attention. Our staff is busily upping the RAM on the server and doing all they can to accommodate this onslaught of traffic. (One administrator describes the effort as putting a bandaid on a large flesh wound.) Today we’ve had more than 15,000 visits and more than 30,000 page views as of 3 p.m., where typically we might have 1,000. As someone Haiku’d in the Reddit comments:

Reddit the giant
Wants to pet the small website
Squishes it instead

Transcription is an expensive and laborious process, but the Internet allows us to experiment with “crowdsourcing,” or collaborative transcription of manuscript materials, in which members of the general public with time and interest conduct the transcription. We were inspired by crowd-sourcing efforts like Zooniverse, which enlists “citizen scientists” to help transcribe historic data. But unlike such well-heeled efforts, we lacked a stock of computer programmers or specialized software to manage the job. Instead, we opted for the experimental, low-tech route. Our crack webmaster wrote some PHP code that pulled diary pages into the transcription site, she added a form and some navigation, and just like that the site was born. It’s a homegrown solution that requires staff members to check the transcriptions for accuracy and add them manually to the digital collection.

The end result? A more useful and user-friendly resource, allowing full-text searching of the diary entries, along with easier browsing and reading. Now that an actual crowd has found our crowdsourcing project, we’re well on our way to making this goal a reality.

Nicole Saylor
Head, Digital Library Services