The Oxford English Dictionary: The First Crowdsourcing Project?

Murray in the Scriptorium, 1880s

Murray in the Scriptorium (the data center housing quotation slips), 1880s

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) added the word “crowdsourcing” in its most recent quarterly online update. While the term was coined by Jeff Howe in 2006, after the Word Wide Web has made it easier to solicit “input from a large number of people,” this “new” practice launched the OED itself a century and a half ago:

In July 1857 a circular was issued by the ‘Unregistered Words Committee’ of the Philological Society of London, which had set up the Committee a few weeks earlier to organize the collection of material to supplement the best existing dictionaries. This circular, which was reprinted in various journals, asked for volunteers to undertake to read particular books and copy out quotations illustrating ‘unregistered’ words and meanings—items not recorded in other dictionaries—that could be included in the proposed supplement. Several dozen volunteers came forward, and the quotations began to pour in.

The volume of the “unregistered” material was such that in January 1858, The Philological Society decided that “efforts should be directed toward the compilation of a complete dictionary, and one of unprecedented comprehensiveness.” It took a while, but in April 1879, the newly-appointed editor James Murray issued an appeal to the public, asking for volunteers to read specific books in search of quotations to be included in the future dictionary. Within a year there were close to 800 volunteers and over the next three years, 3,500,000 quotation slips were received and processed by the OED team.

Was this the first big-data-crowdsourcing project?

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