One of the big downsides of being chronically ill is that I can’t do much to contribute to society, either through work or through volunteering. Work is out of the question, and volunteering is tricky due to my wildly fluctuating energy levels. I just can’t say for sure that I’ll be functional on a particular day at a particular time so it’s hard to make a commitment. I hate being a no-show, and I don’t think other people like it very much either!
Enter “virtual volunteering.” I stumbled across it last night and have discovered that there’s a whole world of volunteer work that can be done online at your leisure. Just about anything you can do on a computer can be of use to a charitable or non-profit organization: research, writing, translating, editing, graphic design, web design, data management, consulting, tutoring, mentoring, and e-visiting the homebound. It’s a great solution for people with disabilities or for people with busy schedules who don’t want any more commuting in their lives.
There are two ways of doing it: one is to offer your services to your favourite charity and see if you can work out some arrangement; the other is to look online for virtual volunteer opportunities. One good place to check is your city, state/province, and national volunteering agencies. Large NGOs may also be looking for virtual volunteers. If you’d like to make a more far-reaching impact, you can volunteer through the United Nations on projects all over the world. The internet itself has need of volunteers, and indeed the first virtual volunteering project was for a website that should be familiar to all of us: Project Gutenberg.
I’ve tended to take Project Gutenberg for granted—it’s just there—but it wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for the tens of thousands of mere mortals who volunteer their time to scan, correct, and format public domain books for the rest of us. The volunteering is done through an affiliate website called Distributed Proofreaders (DP), which provides the online tools to manage, correct, and format books for Project Gutenberg. The whole process of taking a text from scanned images to a polished e-text is complex, but getting started is very easy. You only have to peruse the proofing guidelines, create an account, and you can start proofreading immediately. As you gain experience you will be allowed to work at more advanced levels, and can ultimately become a project manager in charge of overseeing a book through the whole process.
As a compulsive editor and congenital bibliophile there was no question about volunteering for Project Gutenberg. In about 24 hours I’ve already proofread 17 pages from “Fine Books” by Alfred W. Pollard, which was published in 1912 as part of the “Connoisseur’s Library” of Putnam/Methuen. The section I’m working on is all about how dreadful early English woodcuts were, to the point that readers were telling publishers not to bother! The optical character recognition (OCR) is quite good and there are usually only one or two corrections per page. The most fun is correcting the occasional Latin or Greek word, which the OCR software has some trouble with. There’s even a popup tool that helps you Romanize Greek words so you can make them readable in the text. O geeky joy!
Not long after I was underway at Distributed Proofreaders I found out that there is a Canadian version of PG and DP, straightforwardly called Project Gutenberg Canada and Distributed Proofreaders Canada. These websites focus mainly on Canadiana, and our slightly different copyright law means that more recent works are available in the public domain here (Laura Ingalls Wilder anyone?). So I’ll be doing my patriotic duty and signing up there as well.
Do you have any virtual volunteering stories to tell? Do you know of any deserving websites or organizations that could use some assistance from us bookish types? Let us know in the comments!