Transcribe, geotag and research horticultural heritage collections

The Royal Horticultural Society’s Digital Dig is a virtual volunteering project, with more than 165 volunteers helping the UK uncover and document its hidden horticultural history. The project has helped uncover and document hidden horticultural history through three distinct volunteering programmes: Transcribers, Geotaggers and Digital Ambassadors and has created digital resources that will make this previously inaccessible collection widely available to online users.

A large garden greenhouse with house plants
Photo by Sigmund on Unsplash

Transcribe, geotag and research horticultural heritage collections

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

1. Project background

The Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has a rare and unique collection of more than 28,000 plant nursery catalogues representing over 2,000 individual nurseries, dating back to 1612. This collection is a fascinating environmental and social history archive, tracking the changing face of gardening infrastructure over time. The Digital Dig project has helped uncover and document hidden horticultural history through three distinct volunteer projects: Transcribers, Geotaggers and Digital Ambassadors. These volunteers have all created digital resources that will make this previously fairly inaccessible collection widely available to users online.

This project was managed by a part-time Digital Dig project manager and a Digital Engagement Officer who managed the Digital Ambassador project. Additional support came from colleagues/teams across Volunteer Development, Libraries and Exhibitions, Fundraising and Digital Collections.

2. Recruitment

The remote digital transcriber role was circulated to the RHS plant committee members and then advertised on the RHS social media channels.

The remote geotagging role was initially advertised on the Countryside Jobs site and Leicester Museum Studies Jobs desk which attracted around 10 people. We then used targeted paid Meta and Google advertising to attract volunteers which ran over two weeks, 103 people applied for the role during this period. We then put the call out on the RHS Libraries channels for a week and amplified it over the main RHS channels over the weekend, which attracted 88 people. Of the 205 applicants 160 quoted social media as how they had found out about the role.


Transcribers – those with an interest in horticulture that wanted to engage with RHS collections, develop digital skills and volunteer remotely.

Geotaggers – specifically targeted students and volunteers interested in remote micro-volunteering opportunities. Appealed to those that had an interest in gardening, wanted experience of heritage work for career development, or to know more about the RHS collections.

For both roles we wanted to reach volunteers that weren’t in the usual catchment area for volunteering at the RHS sites.

Digital Ambassadors – 12 Digital Ambassadors were recruited from two youth groups in areas that related to the nursery catalogue collection: the Museums Partnership Reading youth panel, Reading and students at The Urswick School, Hackney. Specifically we wanted to work with young people on a digital engagement project and capture their views and insights about the collections.


3. Volunteer support

The transcribers attended initial Zoom training sessions which were followed up by some one-to-one Zoom calls. This included a few out of hours to support international volunteers and those with full-time jobs. The majority of communication has been through ongoing emails. We have monthly Digital Dig Zoom catch up sessions, a regular newsletter and a Slack channel for sharing queries, ideas and successes.

The geotagging role was light-touch as the volunteers were provided with instructions and a batch of locations to geotag with the latitude and longitude coordinates. Communication and ongoing support were all through email.

The Digital Ambassadors met regularly in person and were supported by Emily and by their host organisations. In between sessions the groups collaborated with Real Time and Chocolate Films via email, and with each other by WhatsApp.


4. Digital technology and tools

Types of technology digital volunteers used


    • volunteer management applied and recorded hours through Better Impact software
    • transcribed collections using Transkribus Lite or copy typing in MS Word/Google docs
    • communicated through Zoom, email and Slack


    • geotagging research using web browsers, online historic maps, social media contacts, they then returned the
    • geotagged locations information via Google Forms to populate a Google Sheet
    • communicated through email

Digital Ambassadors

    • created digital films through workshops, using video cameras, iPads, and software including Filmora and Frame
    • learnt about corporate social media through training with Emily, and using Facebook and Twitter
    • ideas sharing and reflection through Padlet



Better Impact – annual licence for additional project £140 (RHS already use it for volunteer management)

Digital film workshops – services provided by

    • Chocolate Films – £2695
    • Real Time – £1850

All other digital tools were free as we were keen to explore what could be achieved at low cost.


5. Project stages

1. Staff recruitment
P/t Digital Dig Project Manager recruited, 2.5 days a week. Project team established.

2. Digital project planning and promotion
Research into remote digital volunteering projects and decisions around best tools and platforms for delivery. Create web project page.

3. Digital Volunteer recruitment and training
Development of remote volunteering resources, including handbook, training materials, informal interviews. Use of targeted advertising and Better Impact for recruitment.

4. Digital Volunteer management
Ongoing communication with volunteers through email, Zoom and Slack. Use of newsletter and project emails to share project updates and successes.

5. Digital Volunteer activity
Volunteers used Transkribus Lite to transcribe digitised pages. By the end of February, 31 individual early nursery catalogues have been transcribed totalling 2217 individual pages and over 1099 volunteer hours. Geotaggers were allocated ten locations at a time in spreadsheet form and returned the latitude and longitude coordinates via Google Forms. They have returned 2496 unique locations and given 829 hours of volunteer time to the project.

6. Project Celebrations
In person film screenings for the Digital Ambassadors to showcase their work. Online Digital Dig project celebration and talk.

7. Digital Outputs
Transcribed pages and an interactive map of geotagged locations will feature on the new RHS online collections portal to make the nursery catalogue collections a searchable resource. Films will be launched on social media channels.

8. Project Evaluation
The evaluation consultant was brought in at the start so that we could monitor and evaluate the whole project. Conducted evaluation surveys and focus group interviews about the project.


6. Key learnings

Keep on adapting

his was a pilot project for the RHS to establish whether there would be interest in opening up the library collections for remote volunteering opportunities. Work with your volunteers to capture their insights about what works and what doesn’t and adapt your training and processes to reflect this. Making your volunteers part of the learning and evaluation gives them greater connection to the project.

Using free resources

We were able to utilise free software such as Google Forms and Transkribus Lite which enabled our volunteers to learn new digital skills and to share data easily. The Digital Culture Network has some great tips for navigating which free or low-cost software options are best for a wide range of digital projects.

Reaching new audiences

Paid online advertising can be a powerful tool for reaching specific audiences. Meta (Facebook and Instagram) offers the widest range of audience targeting options, but Google Ads can also work well. Consider carefully how the options for each platform map on to the characteristics of your key audience. In Google Ads we targeted people who do not live close to an RHS garden searching for online volunteering opportunities, but excluded the RHS as keyword to stop it dominating results. In Meta we targeted people who do not live close to an RHS garden, aged between 18-35, who have expressed an interest in themes relating to gardens or horticulture.


7. Key challenges

Keeping momentum

Remote volunteering can be a bit lonely and it is hard to know if volunteers are not in contact because they are happily getting on with the work, busy with other commitments, or actually aren’t engaged with the project. The challenge is around keeping volunteers engaged and supplied with what they need to do the role without overwhelming them with information or deadlines.

Making it sustainable

A remote volunteering project can attract a whole new wealth of volunteers but what happens when the funding ends? Find ways to embed the learning from the project into your organisation so you can offer ongoing opportunities. Project learning from the Digital Dig has been shared with colleagues in other departments and has been fully supported by the Volunteer Development Manager. The Project Manager role has been extended and we are looking at ways to maintain relationships with existing volunteers so that they can transition to new volunteering opportunities.

Know your volunteers

Think about the lifestyle and commitments of the volunteer groups you are looking to attract. Keen gardeners and students are not as available in the summer holidays and the project worked best across the autumn/winter months when they had more time to commit. This can impact your project timescales.


8. Useful links



More help here

Young woman with red hair holding green headphones

Transcribing audio and video archive material

Barnsley Archives hold records relating to all aspects of life in the Borough of Barnsley and its collections include newspapers, books, sound and film. This project sought to engage and upskill remote digital volunteers to help Barnsley Archives and Local Studies interpret, digitally transcribe and publicly share recently acquired sound and film collections.

Screenshot of heatmap of new archaeological sites in Devon

Image analysis for heritage mapping, using open-access software and remote sensing data

New technology allows us to discover and map previously unknown examples of archaeological sites. Working with a team of 60+ volunteers, the Unlocking Landscapes project used open-access software and remote sensing data to undertake a systematic search for new archaeological sites across all 638 parishes of Devon and Cornwall.

Red topped mushroom in woodland

Recruit and manage digital volunteers to deliver data analysis projects

Plantlife International is a wild plant and fungi conservation charity. It’s four-year project Building Resilience in South West Woodlands (2018-2022) raised awareness of Atlantic woodlands across Cornwall, Devon and Somerset, as well as undertaking important management works to ensure the conservation of these habitats. As part of this project hundreds of 360-degree (fisheye) photographs were taken across several project sites. Digital volunteers were recruited to undertake the data analysis work in order for these photographs to be analysed.  This resource shares Plantlife’s journey in recruiting and managing these volunteers and their data work.


Browse related resources by smart tags:

Digital volunteers Volunteers
Published: 2023

Creative Commons Licence Except where noted and excluding company and organisation logos this work is shared under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 (CC BY 4.0) Licence

Please attribute as: "Transcribe, geotag and research horticultural heritage collections (2023) by Royal Horticultural Society supported by The National Lottery Heritage Fund, licensed under CC BY 4.0


More help here

Digital Heritage Hub is managed by Arts Marketing Association (AMA) in partnership with The Heritage Digital Consortium and The University of Leeds. It has received Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and National Lottery funding, distributed by The Heritage Fund as part of their Digital Skills for Heritage initiative. Digital Heritage Hub is free and answers small to medium sized heritage organisations most pressing and frequently asked digital questions.

Arts Marketing Association
Heritage Digital
University of Leeds logo
The Heritage Fund logo