York Museum Trust's Historypin project

Digital volunteering

Rebecca Atkinson, 16.09.2013
Volunteers don’t need to be on-site to make a difference
The internet and rising levels of computer literacy mean that museums are increasingly recruiting digital volunteers (also known as distance or e-volunteers) to work on specific projects.

Crowdsourcing is probably one of the most common ways museums are tapping into the potential of digital volunteers (see separate article).

The costs and complexity of developing projects mean this route is not for everyone – but there are many other ways organisations can work with digital volunteers.

At Lydiard House in Swindon about half of its 50 volunteers rarely set foot inside the museum. Instead, they carry out various tasks remotely via their computers.

Recent projects have included translating a guide to the property into different languages, researching a prisoner of war camp and world war two battleship and transcribing a 200-page book of 17th-century herbal remedies (see case study).

In an article for the South West Federation newsletter, Sophie Cummings, collections manager at Lydiard House, said: “Distance volunteering is extremely popular with volunteers. It fits around their work and caring commitments, and gives flexibility about when and where they volunteer.”

There are advantages for the organisation as well.

“Digital technology makes distance volunteering much simpler,” Cummings says. “Emails and texts can be used for communication. Online groups can be used for meetings and discussions. Cloud drives can be used for storing and sharing work. As you no longer have to provide volunteers with desks and PC access, it also reduces costs.”

Distance volunteering has also helped diversify the property’s volunteering team by involving people with full-time jobs or caring responsibilities who otherwise might not have been able to participate.

There are also some challenges. For example, in most cases distance volunteers will need access to a computer or a smartphone and the internet – potentially excluding some people.

And despite not working in the museum site, they still need to be managed and have regular contact with whoever they report to. Ensuring that distance volunteers feel part of the team and keep up-to-date with the organisation can also be tricky.

York Museums Trust (YMT) recently established a digital volunteering team as part of a wider mission to increase social and digital engagement.

Martin Fell, YMT’s digital team leader, says it started with a pilot project using Historypin where volunteers pin paintings and drawings of York from the collection onto Google Streetview.

The project has been successful, with volunteers starting to proactively do their own research (see case study). There have also been some useful lessons that are helping to inform YMT’s thinking about how and when digital volunteers can be used.

The volunteers were recruited via the Friends of York Art Gallery newsletter, and Fell says the fact that they were already engaged with the museum service was very helpful when it came to explaining policies around copyright and licensing.

There have been some challenges. Fell says some of the volunteers started the project thinking they were not technically capable enough. Although this wasn’t actually the case, training has given them more confidence using the programme.

Another interesting lesson has been how to give the volunteers ownership of the project. Fell says: “They’ve been very interested in their own research and pushing the limits of what the site can do. I took a conscious decision to step back and not micromanage, which has been good for managing my workload too.”

Although not many museums offer widespread digital volunteer opportunities, Fell believes this will change: “Work seems to be quite project focused at the moment but it’s a big leap for museums to run a formal digital volunteering programme because it takes a lot of work and effort.

"There is also still some work to be done on how museum data is put on the web safely, but this is down to a lack of expertise not a lack of willingness.”


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Anna Mikhaylova
MA Member
PhD Candidate, University of Leicester
24.09.2013, 16:46
Many thanks for this article. I am currently colloborating with the State Historical Museums as a social media consultant. We are trying to engage more people via social networks, and after reading this article I would like to create a kind of a volunteering project. Could you please recommend what to read on the topic?