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Imagine you have a problem. A problem too complex, too time-consuming or too diverse to allow you or a small group of your colleagues to successfully answer it by yourselves.

Capturing the power of the crowd and the challenge of community collections

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Crowdsourcing is the term used when this problem is broadcast to a wide audience or community that could solve the problem collectively. Mundane tasks could be outsourced to a motivated and enthusiastic community of experts. The community can assess the answers and provide the quality assurance. Wikipedia is probably the best example of crowdsourcing on the web at present.

What is crowdsourcing?

Imagine you have a problem. A problem too complex, too time-consuming or too diverse to allow you or a small group of your colleagues to successfully answer it by yourselves.

Crowdsourcing is the term used when this problem is broadcast to a wide audience or community that could solve the problem collectively. Mundane tasks could be outsourced to a motivated and enthusiastic community of experts. The community can assess the answers and provide the quality assurance. Wikipedia is probably the best example of crowdsourcing on the web at present.

Some crowdsourcing motivates its community through monetary reward, prestige, competition or simply the honour of working with precious or significant content.

Community collections can be a result of crowdsourcing, where the content provided through the crowdsourcing process is collected and curated in a way that produces a new collection, or collections, around specific communities. These communities organically grow the content as well as managing, disseminating and communicating the collections to new users and audiences.

Community collections are distinct from institutional or ‘official’ collections, yet they can contribute to and interrogate those collections to the benefit of both. Indeed, the concept of community and their engagement by academic and public sectors, as well as business and commercial organisations, is a defining feature of contemporary society. 

Photograph of American recruits for World War One, the uncle of the contributor’s grandmother among them. Her uncle went off to France to fight but died of influenza in 1918. One of many artefacts submitted from overseas. © The Great War Archive, University of Oxford/David Flam.

The challenge…

Universities, colleges, libraries, museums and other cultural heritage organisations are part of a dramatic shift in the way that their digital collections are being generated and consumed by their students, users and the wider general public.

The revolutions in technology, the challenges of funding and the changing expectations and role of universities and cultural institutions, are inverting the traditional model of how online collections are created and used. The ease with which we can now upload our own content (videos, images, presentations) to the web and also comment on others’ content has resulted in a move away from a small number of privileged organisations producing content that is consumed by everyone else.

Now the many can produce content, attended to by all.

Users are no longer happy to be passive consumers of information and content, but instead want to be engaged with, contribute and, most importantly, create content.

The curation and creation of community collections and content has the possibility of including all of us in worlds that were previously hard to get access to or were closed off entirely. The centre cannot maintain itself in isolation and must call upon the expertise, enthusiasm and motivation of everyone to help foster new research and knowledge.

In an academic realm there is a challenge presented by the tension between maximising the potential of the crowd and the creation and fostering of communities, while retaining its usefulness to academia. More fundamentally there are the questions of how content created by these communities is preserved for the long term, how this new content is edited and moderated, and issues we may have with intellectual property rights and copyright.

Building your communities…

Case study - First World War Poetry Archive

It appears, at first glance, too good to be true: you have some digital images from your archive, which have little or no metadata or descriptions, and by using a free resource such as Flickr, which allows you to share your photos with anyone, anywhere in the world, people will find your images, tag them, add metadata and use them to interact and engage with your wider collections.

The reality is a little different. It is unlikely that you would receive much in the way of ‘comments’ or useful descriptions. Adding images to a website is the easy part; the hardest part is always to effectively build your community and to ensure that the right people are a part of the group.

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive project created the Great War Archive. The project set up a website so that the public could submit photographs of memorabilia and souvenirs from the First World War and could type in their family’s story. The seeds of this incredibly diverse and active community were set through well-advertised [see poster] and resourced digitisation events. Travelling around the country, the project advertised ‘roadshows’ through local media and through the libraries, archives and venues they visited.

People were able to uncover the First World War memorabilia they had in their attics, bring it along and have it digitised and added to the project’s website. Establishing this community took a large amount of resources, which ran as a pilot for only three months in 2008. This community collection now consists of over 6,500 objects from the UK and beyond. The project was inundated with requests to display further images from the public after the pilot collection ended, but this was unsustainable for the project without further funding.

So the archive set up a group on the free Flickr photo-sharing service, with the project effectively handing the Great War Archive back to those who helped create it; separate and yet part of the community collection.

The community is still active and new objects are being added all the time. The project maintains a number of Google Groups as well as using Facebook, Twitter and an active engagement with Flickr to ensure the community continues to develop and is not allowed to stagnate or dissipate. The Flickr group now holds over 2,400 items.

If you are interested in running your own community collection online, JISC has funded RunCoCo who are offering training and sharing best practice from the Great War Archive.

 George Cavan was a Company Sergeant Major. While away at training camp the orders came through to dispatch to France.

The train he was on with his troops went through his home station but did not stop there.

He threw out onto the platform a matchbox containing a note to his family. On one side was the name of his wife and on the other the message to the family.

Someone picked up the matchbox and delivered it to the family. George was killed just a few days after arriving at the front in France on 13 April 1918. 

Sapper E. Grantham of the 156th Field Company, Royal Engineers, was awarded a bravery certificate for fixing a bombing post in a tunneling trench whilst under heavy fire at Bullecort in November 1917. He escaped unharmed after a tea tin in his haversack, pictured here, deflected a bullet.

Robert Johnson brought an incredible artefact in to the submission day held at Edinburgh Central Library. During the First World War his father’s sister gave birth to her first child, and just a week later her husband was sent to the front line. Whilst he was in the trenches, his wife sent him photographs of his new family.

Unfortunately it wasn’t long before he was killed in action. When his belongings were returned home, the wallet and the photographs inside bore a hole made by the bullet that killed him. 

 Diary of 494 Sergeant Joseph Cecil Thompson of the 9th Battalion AIF. He was the band leader for the 9th Battalion, and a stretcher bearer, and as Sergeant, was in charge of the stretcher bearers at Gallipoli.

Between August 1914 and January 1920 1,150,000 Memorial Death Plaques commonly called the ‘Dead Man’s Penny’ were sent by the British Government to the next of kin of soldiers who lost their lives in the Great War. This is the Memorial Death Plaque for George William Oliver. 

Percy Matthews trained at the Ramsgate School of Art. During World War I he served on the Western Front as a Private in the Kentish Buffs, and later in Salonika as a Lieutenant in the Middlesex Regiment. It was in Salonika that he produced his remarkable sketches of scenes and characters from military and civilian life. 

Confronting the challenges…

JISC has taken a leading role in funding projects to address and explore the idea of community collections; that is collections of digital resources, developed not from a single institution, but involving a broader community of interested parties uploading and contributing content.

JISC’s Business and Community Engagement programme seeks to increase institutions’ efficiency, effectiveness and opportunities in Business and Community Engagement activities, as well as to improve access to institutions’ knowledge and expertise for business and community organisations.

This work has recently culminated in a joint initiative with the Digitisation and e-Content Programme on developing community content, which will fund a range of projects exploring the rapid innovation of existing resources to help engage new external audiences and encourage active engagement. As part of the programme, UK colleges and universities will also co-create content, building on and transforming existing content with external communities.

The 2012 London Olympics site: East London Lives.


  • Make your challenge BIG! The closer to impossible it seems, the more people will want to help and be a part of it
  • Let users know how well they are doing, either collectively or individually: competition and achievement work
  • Make it easy to use, contribute and submit
  • Keep the site active: you need to do some work too. Developing communities that are active and evolving takes effort and work
  • Be open and assume contributors are correct. Adding lots of checks and barriers will only act to discourage activity and creativity – also it is very unlikely you will get any vandalism or misuse

The paradox of the crowd

Why does crowdsourcing work? If you described to someone the concept of crowdsourcing: of contributing to a common goal/good, to be accessed by anyone and without any central authority, the immediate response might be, what stops non-contributors from profiting from the hard work of the contributors? Why take the time to create and upload your own work when you can simply reuse the work of someone else? Indeed, what prevents crowdsourcing from forming its own vicious spiral of decay, where contributions falter in the face of mass exploitation?

And yet, paradoxically, the evidence suggests that, despite the disproportionate number of downloads in relation to contributions, the growth of content is maintained, and easily copes with the demand that non-contributors place on it.

One explanation may be that contributors are able to achieve a private good from the experience, one which allows them to obtain the attention and recognition of others. This is especially the case with academic communities, who essentially publish work for the attention given to it by others. Such recognition is an enormous driving factor in the success and growth of crowdsourcing within education and beyond.

Sources for such evidence include: Glance, N. and Huberman, B.A. (1994) Dynamics of social dilemmas, Scientific American, 270(3),76-81 and Levine, S.S. and Shah, S. Cultivating the Digital Commons: A framework for collective open innovation. Accessed February 2010.  

Magazine from 1916, submitted to the Great War Archive Flickr Group on the behalf of Lady Moira Bannister, wife of Sir Roger Bannister. Her mother Violet Nye, was a senior officer in the Queen Mary Army Auxiliary Corps. The Flickr Group has enabled members of the public to continue to share items originating from the First World War after the deadline for submission to the pilot database passed in June 2008. © The Great War Archive, University of Oxford/Lady Moira Bannister.

Managing community rights…

Case study -  East London Lives

When undertaking a community engagement project, it is a daunting prospect having to deal with the possible implications of copyright and intellectual property rights.

The East London Lives 2012 project at the University of East London undertook an ambitious and innovative approach to the impact of the London 2012 Olympics on the communities and people that would be most affected by the event.

Employing oral interviews with school pupils and members of the public, as well as videos, photos and academic research and official documents, the project faced the unenviable task of ensuring that all this material was rights cleared and licensed in a clear, unambiguous and robust way.

The complexities and issues that face community-generated and created content meant some things were not possible. Some oral histories could not be made available online, only in hard copy through the university library. The project was also unable to ‘deep link’ to other community organisations’ web presences because of the possibility of content generated being libellous or defamatory.

One method for avoiding issues with copyright from contributors was to use selected contributors and treat them as researchers for the project. This meant that all rights were owned by the University of East London and the project. This allowed the project to avoid issues surrounding moderation as well as intellectual property issues with the reuse of third-party content.

The innovative nature of the project meant that where content was used from communities, individuals or groups, a Creative Commons licence was employed and the content was licensed to the project for non-profit use. The community and academic nature of the project meant there was little hesitancy in contributors’ licensing rights to the project.

For researchers and academic partners who were contributing content, an Open Educational licence was employed. This allowed the content to be used for research and teaching purposes, and allowed the project to obtain and use material from a wide range of researchers and research institutions.

Combining the commissioning of content, the use of school and community groups and specific licences, allowed the East London Lives project to navigate its way through a complex and intimidating area with great success.

Index of JISC sources

Digitisation, Curation and Two-Way Engagement

Examining the potential for digitising and curating collections of cultural or social worth from the general public.

What are some of the organisational and policy issues that institutions face when contemplating engaging with external communities and the co-creation of resources?

This study, commissioned by JISC and carried out by Chris Batt Consulting, confronts these issues and makes a number of recommendations and points for further discussion to help initiate a process of cooperation and collaboration between institutions and all of us.


  • Access Open Access
  • Lead institution Chris Batt Consulting
The Great War Archive

Uncovering the extraordinary stories from the general public about the First World War.

The First World War Poetry Digital Archive brings together dispersed and unseen primary source material from the Great War: Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Sigfried Sassoon, David Jones, Issac Rosenberg and many others. It includes their poetry manuscripts, service records, war diaries and correspondence sent while on active duty.

Personal tales of the war are on offer, too, through the Great War Archive. The general public were invited to send in digital versions of memorabilia originating from the First World War, or stories that had been passed down through families.

This amazing archive of stories and images has established itself as a tool for teachers, students and researchers uncovering the untold stories of the Great War, and adding an entirely new understanding of how the general public can contribute to new avenues of research in this vital area.


  • Access Open Access
  • Lead institution University of Oxford
Running Community Collections Online

Supporting the creation of community collections and harnessing the power of the crowd for education and the public sector.

Running Community Collections (RunCoCo) will offer free training, expertise and open software to help small institutions in the education and public sectors harness knowledge from the general public to enrich existing digital collections for research and teaching, and collect and catalogue digital media (photos, films and interviews) from a community.

RunCoCo is building a support network to exchange knowledge about ‘community collections’, helping collect and catalogue digital photos, films and interviews from the general public, and to enrich the metadata of existing digital collections by harnessing the enthusiasm and knowledge of a community.


  • Access Open Access
  • Lead institution University of Oxford
East London Lives

A living record of East London before, during and after the 2012 Olympic Games, as told by the local community.

East London Lives is a ‘living’ digital archive which documents the lives of East Londoners towards the hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games. It records and reflects on the process of social change in East London arising from hosting the games, and maps the everyday effects that the Olympics have on local inhabitants as they happen.

The archive includes interviews with local schools and their pupils, local residents and taxi drivers. This community content is complemented by and informs research on the indicators about well-being and health that were pledges made by the government, and a range of teaching materials developed by the project.


  • Access Open Access
  • Lead institution University of East London
Business and Community Engagement, e-Content & Digitisation programmes: Developing community content

An innovative programme of work that will help transform the way academic institutions engage with external communities.

Beginning in Spring 2010, this exciting programme will enhance recognition among institutions and wider stakeholders of the value of digital collections as a powerful driver for community and public engagement, and increase capacity in the sector for community and public engagement through digital content.

The programme will help to enhance institutions’ engagement with the wider public and specific communities that the institutions identify through the creation of digital content collections, for the benefit of all involved. The projects involved will also develop more strategic coordination between institutional digital collections and institutional business and community engagement, and enhance mutual awareness between the different staff involved.


  • Access Open Access
  • Lead institution Various

Documents & Multimedia

Ben Showers (JISC Digitisation Programme Manager)
Publication Date
12 April 2010
Publication Type
Strategic Themes