Create a remote global volunteer base to improve the searchability of digital archive

The #CrowdCymru digital archives volunteer project was jointly run by Gwent Archives, Glamorgan Archives and Cardiff University & Special Collections. Using a newly created bi-lingual online platform developed by the National Library of Wales, #CrowdCymru invited volunteers to tag, index and transcribe documents to make them more accessible for researchers.  Although the majority of the remote volunteers came from Wales, there were also sign-ups from USA, Canada, Australia and South Korea.


Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

Create a remote global volunteer base to improve the searchability of digital archive

This is a ‘how to recruit, train, manage and support volunteers’ guide produced as part of the Digital Skills for Heritage’s Digital Volunteering programme.

1. Project background

Archive services across Wales hold millions of irreplaceable records, including family and business papers, plans, photographs, parchments, personal diaries and council minutes. However, many are only minimally catalogued and therefore difficult to identify and find.

The #CrowdCymru project invited remote volunteers to tag, index and transcribe documents to make them more accessible for researchers. The project helped to harness the knowledge of individuals in communities across Wales and beyond to enrich this collective heritage for the benefit of current and future generations – locally, nationally, and globally.


2. Recruitment

Promotional emails were sent out to UK history and heritage groups; ‘other’ groups including Adult Learning, Women’s Institute, Digital Communities Wales, Carers Wales and Age Cymru; international Welsh heritage groups; creative writing courses and targeted individuals. Responses from this led to presentations to Welsh local history societies and university courses including lifelong and distance learners. An active Twitter account, online articles and blog posts have also proved beneficial in promoting this project.

No age targets were discussed and experience was not necessary. However, we were hoping to attract both those who would not normally engage with digitised heritage and those from outside the UK. The digital platform and all publicity and communications are fully bi-lingual.  Welsh-speaking groups and individuals were not directly targeted but to date one Welsh-speaker has signed up.

Our volunteer list shows the majority of those engaged with heritage, have already volunteered, have some digital experience, and/or is a member of a social/heritage/history group.  The majority are aged 65+, approximately half are retired, two thirds live in Wales, but we also have sign ups from Germany, USA, Australia, and Canada.

Presentations given to Digital Communities Wales groups generated further presentations to digital inclusion, community regeneration and community arts groups. Disappointingly these have so far been the least successful as we had especially hoped to recruit those who would not normally engage with heritage. During these presentations/events the Project Manager did her best to try and engage this demographic, but as yet, no volunteers have been forthcoming.

We have currently decided against paid-for advertising as we’re happy with our recruited numbers but may reconsider if necessary.


3. Volunteer support

  • Regular email contact was established from the outset with volunteers being encouraged to contact the Project Officer at any time concerning project related issues.
  • A closed Facebook Group has been created to encourage the volunteers to chat to each other and raise questions with the Project Officer.
  • We have an active Twitter account followed by a number of our volunteers  and use it to promote project progress, highlight collections, and foster support for other archive, library, museums, and heritage accounts.
  • To date, from a total of 65 registered volunteers, we have delivered online training sessions to 41 via group and individual sessions. All volunteers were offered the training, but a number have opted to find their own way.


4. Digital technology and tools

The National Library of Wales (NLW) developed a bespoke, bi-lingual online platform for the project and volunteers gained access via an email invite to register. They login and choose a document to transcribe, summarise or describe using a capture model depending on the type of document/ metadata required.

We initially experienced technical issues with both the registration process and accessing of content, which generated an unexpected period of intensive work for the Project Officer and NLW technical support. But generally, the volunteers have found the platform user friendly and got to work quickly. So quickly in fact that to date we have a rapidly growing pile of submitted transcriptions to be reviewed whilst still finalising the review process. Do not underestimate an enthusiastic volunteer workforce.


The volunteers worked on the Torf crowdsourcing platform, an open-source software project created and hosted by the National Library of Wales and based upon the Madoc open-source platform created by Digirati. The development cost of this online platform was c. £27,00.  All other tools were free — Facebook, Twitter, Teams.

Throughout the project the volunteers used email to communicate with the Project Officer, as well as a closed Facebook page and a Twitter account.  Training took place using Teams.


5. Project stages

  • Project Officer worked with National Library of Wales to develop online platform, recruiting volunteers, and working with the project partners on confirming collections + Project Officer training
  • Community and Volunteering groups identified and approached to join project by project officer
  • Project Advertised and marketed to engage individuals
  • Volunteering workshops and training on the using the online platform and describing the collections
  • Volunteers undertake the crowdsourcing work, adding metadata via the online platform – to date this has involved the transcription of letters from the Edward Thomas [WWI war poet] archive. More transcription collections are due to be added along with photographic collections that will require tagging and describing. The platform is fully bilingual, but no Welsh language collections are due to be included
  • Project Exit and Evaluation:
    • lessons learnt, measure and evaluate audience penetration, value, and impact of the project;
    • summary project report and recommendations for wider ARCW rollout.


6. Key learnings 

When we sent out our registration forms, we included the following questions,  why you are interested in volunteering and what do you hope to get out of the project. The overwhelming response to the first question has been from people already involved in volunteering with an interest in local history. We provided a series of tick boxes for the second question and by far the most ticked were improve knowledge, take on a challenge and make a difference. We’ll have more information when we come to review the project but the chance to transcribe late 19th/early 20th century letters has so far proved very popular.

Set clear goals for your project

These will foster clear and effective communication. Ask key questions: Why are we doing this project? What problem are we are trying to solve? What are the benefits to be realized as an outcome of the project? How can they be measured and tracked? These findings can be returned to time and time again and during times of overwhelm, revisiting the original plan/manifesto always helps reset priorities and retune clarity.  For example, some way into the project the Project Officer was contacted by an organisation keen to discuss the work and potential joint working with their project.  Returning to the key priorities/aims of the project was helpful.  We were keen to work together, but ultimately this would have impacted the delivery of our own aims and so greater partnership was not possible. Also, to combat the frustration of not attracting those people who had not previously engaged with volunteering/heritage, it was a beneficial reset to return to a key aim of the project: “harnessing the knowledge of individuals in communities across Wales and beyond to enrich our collective heritage for the benefit of current and future generations – locally, nationally, and globally.”

Fully understand your stakeholder landscape

Who will potentially impact or be impacted by this project? Know your stakeholders’ culture, background, and previous experiences with similar projects. Many of those who we were sure would show interest, did not. For example, we didn’t think that a global reach would be so difficult given the ease of working on an online project. We expected a higher uptake from our call out to international Welsh societies, but it has remained low. Little feedback was given as to why engagement was low, but we have since realised that one of the projects biggest attractions appears to be for those people who live within the close vicinity of the collections themselves. They have a personal connection to the documents and the people and places within.

Embrace change/risk management

Things can change after a project begins rendering certain decisions/assumptions made in the beginning as no longer valid. Flexibility in managing change increase the chances of success so keep an open mind, nothing ever goes completely to plan. Technical delays with the online platform have [on the plus side] enabled more time to engage with and get to know our volunteer database. It also allowed time to commit to promotion and marketing which I doubt I’d have had if the project core work had started sooner.


7. Key challenges

Be prepared for IT / construction issues

Our digital platform has experienced difficulties primarily due to a system upgrade throwing up new problems and has caused delays.  This is not the first time in my experience that an upgrade has resulted in system fail/delay. A lesson learned here would be to not make hopeful promises and then keep having to apologise when you can’t follow through.

Unforeseen circumstances

Staff absences cannot be anticipated or  planned for but can easily happen.  The winter months of this project saw key members of the project board all experience ill health, which affected decision making.  This in turn then affected scheduling – be prepared for how quickly you can fall behind and factor more safety/breathing periods in project plans.

Volunteer engagement

A risk for this project, as with other volunteer-heavy projects, is whether enough people will agree to take part and commit their time and make the project successful.  This was managed here with strong communications and marketing. To date we have surpassed the goal of 50 set by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.


8. Useful links

Social media



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Published: 2023

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Please attribute as: "Create a remote global volunteer base to improve the searchability of digital archive (2024) by supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0


More help here

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