In this article I call for more recognition of and scholarly engagement with public, volunteer digital humanities projects, using the example of LibriVox.org to consider what public, sustainable, digital humanities work can look like beyond the contexts of institutional sponsorship. Thousands of volunteers are using LibriVox to collaboratively produce free audiobook versions of texts in the US public domain. The work of finding, selecting, and preparing texts to be digitized and published in audio form is complex and slow, and not all of this labor is ultimately visible, valued, or rewarded. Drawing on an ethnographic study of 12 years of archived discourse and documentation, I interrogate digital traces of the processes by which several LibriVox versions of Anne of Green Gables have come into being, watching for ways in which policies and infrastructure have been influenced by variously visible and invisible forms of work. Making visible the intricate, unique, archived experiences of the crowdsourcing community of LibriVox volunteers and their tools adds to still-emerging discussions about how to value extra-institutional, public, distributed digital humanities work.
LibriVox workflows have developed in an ad hoc manner, across multiple online and offline spaces, negotiated by volunteers who were learning together how best to support and steward this open digital project. Built upon the affordances provided by new models of collaborative production and the increasing availability and accessibility of digital tools and platforms, the LibriVox project invites any willing volunteers to join in their mission To make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet . LibriVox productions are most often deeply collaborative, with several readers recording smaller sections of a text. All languages, accents, and reading styles are welcome, and anyone willing to propose, manage, and complete an audiobook project is encouraged to contribute. Aside from an insistence on public domain content recorded in standard, accessible file formats, there are no firm rules about how volunteers perform this work. LibriVox volunteers operate collaboratively, but independently, without institutional sponsorship and without much official direction or management beyond their own transient, global, online community of practice. However, there is a need for consistency and some degree of shared policy in coordinating the contributions of thousands of diverse volunteers. Volunteers must find ways to reliably coordinate the labor not only of recording and distributing audiobooks, but also the labor of developing, documenting, and maintaining a set of standard, inviting production processes, while also allowing the project to remain open, flexible, and relatively convenient for current and prospective members. The dual priorities of maintaining an open, inviting community while also aiming for clear, accessible, and consistently high-quality recordings from all volunteers can occasionally seem at odds. Each volunteer confronts and negotiates her own sense of balance within that tension, and along the way, subtly reinforces or undermines the current status quo within the wider project. Within such a context of production, where individuals from diverse cultures are encouraged to contribute as much or as little as their time and interests allow, how do LibriVox volunteers (collaboratively and individually) navigate the technical, sociocultural, and material contexts in which their audio recording and editing work takes place?
Though LibriVox volunteers, for the most part, do not act as scholars, nor as paid professionals or experts, their work does count as digital preservation, as humanities work, and as generous public service. The work of finding, selecting, and preparing texts to be digitized and published in audio form can be complex and slow. According to the needs of each project, LibriVox volunteers may perform the labor of curators, copyright sleuths, digital content managers, voice artists, project managers, mentors and instructors, researchers, translators, audio producers, and technical writers. Not all of this volunteer labor ultimately remains visible (or audible) to those who download and listen to finished LibriVox audiobooks, nor is it even visible to all volunteers. 2b1af7f3a8