Taking Bibliogeekery to the Next Level

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!


11 comments on “Taking Bibliogeekery to the Next Level

  1. wil says:

    I've looked into virtual volunteering before, but haven't had much luck. I was an online mentor for a brief time, but the program was really weak — the kids were not into it…communication was short and very sporadic. I got the strong impression that it was nothing more than a forced, schoolwork exercise on their part.
    Perhaps it's time I give it another try.

  2. Stefanie says:

    I created an account at Distributed Proofreaders a couple years ago and then got side tracked with trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life and then starting library school. Maybe when school is done I can try again because it sounds like great fun. In the meantime I do some volunteering at the Internet Public Library assisting with digital collections and the occasional reference question.

  3. Sylvia says:

    Wil, very brave of you to take on ungrateful teenagers! 😉
    Stefanie, I think you probably have enough on your plate! But yes, proofreading obscure texts with a bunch of extreme book addicts is strangely fun!

  4. びっくり says:

    Is your about page new? I don't remember reading it before, but I had guessed CFS based on some of your other comments and posts.
    I hope that this opportunity works out well for you. As you say, it is nice to be able to contribute. You might even say it is an important part of connecting to others in a harmonious way.

  5. Sylvia says:

    My About page has always been there, but the link used to be buried in the sidebar. I do tweak it from time to time. Good guessing on your part!
    Thanks, I agree. We're all in this together!

  6. Blacklin says:

    I'm going to have to check out DP. It sounds really cool and a great way to get back into proofreading. Thanks for posting about this. I never knew DP existed.

  7. Sylvia says:

    Give it a try, Blacklin! The community there seems to be quite supportive and fun. One of the forum threads is spinning a story, two words at a time. 😀

  8. Carol A says:

    “There’s even a popup tool that helps you Romanize Greek words so you can make them readable in the text. O geeky joy!” Strangely I can barely recognise ancient Greek words when changed to Roman letters!
    Don't feel like you are not contributing – just doing this site has prompted me to start back recording books I read and sorting them out. And Project Gutenberg helps millions of school and university students with texts, not to mention a lot of people living in remote areas away from libraries (or just plain short of cash!) I'll be doing this myself when I retire (now only 1,143 days away – who's counting?)

  9. Sylvia says:

    Thanks, Carol A. It is certainly my wish that this blog helps sustain and encourage bookish enthusiasm. 🙂 Only 1,142 days to go now! I'll save a spot for you at Distributed Proofreaders. 😉

  10. Blacklin says:

    I've proofread 5 pages (I think.) Pretty cool. Just have to get used to proofing online.

  11. Sylvia says:

    Right on! It's not quite as satisfying as marking up a piece of paper with a nice red pen but it works. 😉

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