Raiders of the Lost Archives, or How I Made Volunteer Data Entry Fun

The Independent Publishing Resource Center (IPRC) supports Portland’s arts and writing community and curates North America’s largest zine library, a circulating archive of self-published and otherwise underground and rare publications. Our collection is well-known, diverse, and spans seven decades and over 60 languages.

As glorious as the zine library is, we have developed an enviable problem of scale. When we first started collecting and archiving zines back in 1999, it was simply a small collection of zines in a few milk crates. We had a talented professional librarian who volunteered and catalogued all the zines lovingly by himself. We got just a few dozen zines donated each month, so adding them to the catalogue was a relatively simple process.

Now, however, 20-200 zines and comics are donated each week, and there’s no way to catalog the zines fast enough with our regular volunteers. It became clear that we needed to engage more volunteers to catalog zines. The backlog had grown so unimaginable, though, that it seemed impossible we’d be able to train enough volunteers to catalog zines using our existing database. What’s more, cataloguing zines could only happen at the IPRC by volunteers trained on our database when no other task was being done on our two computers.

Even if two of the most dedicated, magical volunteers could simultaneously catalog 12 hours a day, seven days a week, it would still take nearly six months to work through our entire backlog — and that’s if we didn’t intake a single new zine. Essentially, even if volunteers only catalogued new zines, we’d still be paddling up a creek filled with photocopied pages of punk mixtape track listings and Star Trek fan comics.

I started having fantasies of a marathon of cataloguing: how could we make it fun for volunteers to catalog zines? What if we made it a feat of strength? In a fit of nonprofit overconfidence, Raiders of the Lost Archives was born. Imagined as a 24-hour zine cataloguing marathon, we managed to pull off the work of cataloguing zines. One hundred twenty people showed up. We catalogued over 1000 zines  — the equivalent of the 3 previous years’ worth of volunteer work in less than a day.

I had long thought that cataloguing zines was an introverted activity and that the best volunteer recruitment I could do would be to make it easy for volunteers to take a stack of zines home, read them while cuddling their cat, and bring them back at their leisure. But Raiders of the Lost Archives’ first 24-hour cataloguing event revealed that competitive reading is actually a thing. Librarianship and zinestership fosters a collaborative, friendly environment, and volunteers loved both the bragging rights and getting to show off weird or rare zines to their friends.

This first year, I simply used a very rudimentary Google doc to have volunteers do the data entry. This meant that every couple hours, I sorted the Google doc into columns, counted up each team’s zines, and hand-wrote a “leaderboard” on the IPRC’s fold-up whiteboard. It worked okay, but I had dreams  of a real game with merit badges for cataloguing certain types of zines — 1980’s zines, punk zines, zines about cats, zines made in Oregon, etc.

Once again armed with overconfidence — this time that of someone who’s never built a piece of functional software before, I managed to assemble a team of programmers and sat in on weekly Sunday morning conference calls about the zine library game. Just a week before our second annual Raiders of the Lost Archives, the software was still too buggy to use. It was possible I was going to do another whiteboard leaderboard again this year if the game didn’t get finished. They pulled an all-nighter and delivered a working game just two hours before the event started. As our intrepid Raiders trickled in, ready to start, I got them set up on the game, relying on one of our sleep-deprived and coffee-fueled volunteer programmers to act as tech support for the first several hours of the event. He squashed the last bugs in the first few hours of the Raiders event as volunteers reported problems.

Altogether, the game meant that we could foster friendly competition amongst volunteers. The merit badges were incredible motivating for volunteers and allowed us to prioritize zines that we wanted to catalog — within a few hours of Raiders starting, every single copy of “Whipsaw,” our local soccer team’s fanzine, was catalogued, because there was a merit badge for cataloguing it. Around 3AM, some of our volunteers had acquired every merit badge but the Harry Potter merit badge (turns out Harry Potter fanzines were scarce), so motivated by a “collect ‘em all” attitude, we collaborated on a few Harry Potter fanzines we then immediately catalogued. Talk about volunteer motivation for data entry – volunteers were actually creating more things to data enter!

We ended up cataloging 40% more zines than the previous year; a post-hoc survey found that those that participated both years said they found the game a huge improvement in the overall experience. The game is so usable that now we have a “zine donation station” set up and require people to use the game to catalog their own zine donations at the time they donate them, eliminating the intake bottleneck we were experiencing for donations. The wait time from new donation to “new arrivals” shelf is now less than 11 days — as opposed to the eight months when it was just three volunteers cataloguing zines. Many people use the game to catalog their own zine and have so much fun using the game that they come back to catalog from our backlog.

What’s next for the game? We’re recruiting a volunteer UI designer to pretty up the “game” and make it more game-like. Plans involve a secret zine forest filled with yetis. The hope is that there will be quests that participants can create within the game, and we’ll open up the “merit badges” to be created by the volunteers as they level up. But even if nothing changes in the game, it solved a problem for us that every non-profit struggles with: how do you make data entry rewarding and fun.

Lillian Karabaic
Zine Librarian
Independent Publishing Resource Center
Lillian Karabaic works as Zine Librarian at the Independent Publishing Resource Center and as Development Coordinator at theCommunity Cycling Center. She seeks to increase access to transit, data, self-expression, and bicycling. You can find her on Twitter@anomalily and on the web at http://www.anomalily.net.