Use GoogleDocs for Crowd-Sourced Notes

CrowdI don’t remember exactly when it happened, but at some point I started using public GoogleDocs as a way to take notes during a workshop or conference session. Furthermore, I usually announce–via Twitter–the address of the GoogleDoc in question and encourage other attendees to contribute to the document I’d created. This happened, for example, last weekend as I attended the API Workshop organized by Dave Lester and hosted by the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities.

Someone happened to mention on Twitter that several of the projects being discussed were trying to tackle the issue of transcribing documents not well-suited to OCR: hand-written personal letters, medieval manuscripts, diaries, and several other genres of writing. Inspired by this Tweet, I gave a lunch-time lightning talk in which I mentioned this particular Tweet and suggested that we organize an afternoon unconference session addressing this issue.

Just minutes before my lightning talk, I created a relatively simple GoogleDoc with some basic information on the topic: here’s the first draft of that document. Enough people were interested in the issue of transcription that the session took place with about 40 participants, enough of whom contributed to the document that it eventually eventually grew into this, which is pretty impressive. This is now a document with dozens of contributors.

As a result of this GoogleDoc, many of the relevant projects are aware of each others’ existence, where they weren’t before. Several possible approaches are shared among those who need to know about those approaches. And a kind of “environmental scan” has been completed (or, at least, is ongoing) with regard to the ways digital humanities projects might approach the task of document transcription.

Now, I do think it’s important to encourage people to actually make changes to the document, not merely add comments in the margins. The document will not grow meaningfully if everyone is more interested in commenting upon this or that sentence or idea instead of trying to clarify or expand the content. Marginalia can prove useful, of course, but contributors should try not to overdo it. Also, the ability of the collaborators to chat in the right-hand sidebar proves useful when, say, 24 people are logged in to the same document at once.

How about you? Have you used GoogleDocs in this way? Or have you come up with a different approach to this kind of real-time, crowd-sourced taking of notes?

[Creative Commons-licensed flickr photo by ]

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