How You Can Save Libraries With Just a Few Clicks

How You Can Save Libraries With Just a Few Clicks

By Mary Flanagan



Because your Google search is leaving out so much.

By Mary Flanagan

Save the books. And the film reels. The photos, the manuscripts, the letters, the maps.

These artifacts that fill our libraries threaten to sink into oblivion. But the good news? You can save them. As it turns out, the fate of media soon to be housed in the Digital Public Library of America lies in the hands of everyday Internet users, thanks to the power of crowdsourcing. How? You just have to be playing little online games. 

These particular games just happen to add keywords to help organize media files like images, manuscripts, and more. Welcome to the future of digital curation: gamified Wikipedia.

The goal: to make printed words and imagery imminently findable once they’re moved from physical shelves to virtual ones. The British Library announced in 2012 that millions of cultural heritage artifacts could be effectively lost to the world if they were not put online — the photos and maps stored in boxes all around the world will simply be forgotten as we move further into our digitally connected age. 

For the generations who’ve grown up without the library as a core part of their lives, this mission might seem a strange one. But ever since the first libraries in ancient Southern Iraq started archiving clay cuniform tablets over five and a half thousand years ago, libraries have held each successive society’s greatest treasured documents and artifacts of learning and knowledge.

As vast as Google’s reach is, the mega-corp’s multiyear Book project has, to date, scanned only about 15 percent of the world’s books.

After the books and photos and manuscripts and home movies are scanned, all of that material must be labeled by name, type or category — along with a description with detailed words to help us find it. 

These archives have all the stuff Google doesn’t show you. By media scholar Ken Hillis’s count, as vast as Google’s reach is, the mega-corp’s multiyear Book project has, to date, scanned only about 15 percent of the world’s books. Book digitization helps Google’s translation algorithms and adds to the bottom line, it takes a long time. Images, films, and sound archives are less important to Google because these media don’t help its bottom line. If it’s not a book, chances are it will be left behind Google’s path: There are millions of boxes in archives and museums that are labeled with limited information, and even if this stuff is digitized, you won’t be able to find it. 

And millions of students, researchers, and the public are missing out on the incredible amount of information that doesn’t pop up on the first page of search results.

Which is where you come in: Crowdsourcing, where thousands of online users contribute to solving a problem. Groups like the IMLS and the Digital Public Library of America scan images and put them online for the public to access. Then we use the power of the crowd to learn more. Say a digitized image is from an Arctic exploration. The words that come to mind when a member of the public sees the image might be: “Bear, Polar Bear, Animal, Snow.” Another person who happens to know Latin comes along — Wikipedia style — and types “Ursus,” the species name for bear. A geography buff might notice distinct markings of the “Beaufort Sea” in Northern Alaska. A photography lover might be able to date the photo by the color or type of technique used. 

This massive expansion of our Wikified universe is inspired by Carnegie Mellon professor Luis von Ahn’s research on crowdsourcing. The idea is to marshal wisdom — and to experiment in encouraging it via game portals. That’s what Dartmouth College archivist Peter Carini and I are working on: a free open-source crowdsourcing game platform, Metadata Games, to save our artifacts from digital oblivion. It’s a chance to turn Sporcle or CandyCrush energy into quizzable, crowdsourced information; when you play these games, you test your own knowledge and help gather valuable tags for cultural heritage institutions in the cloud. Take one game — called Stupid Robot — which asks you to help a robot learn how to understand the universe. Or a competitive two-player guessing app called, simply, Guess What

Want to add your unique contribution, or never contributed that Wikipedia entry you meant to? Go to, play some games, and help yourself to some intriguing images from the British Library. It’s Tuesday-night trivia — but all to save the library.