Crowdsourcing and the Practice of History

This semester I’m directing an independent study on the theory and practice of public history by a student who’s interested in pursuing graduate study in that increasingly popular field. In our weekly conversation on Wednesday, we talked about his initial impressions of how public historians have tried to define what it is that they do. One notion that stuck with him was that public historians sought not simply to make history accessible to the public, but to approach the public as potential collaborators in the ongoing study of the past. It struck both of as instinctively appealing, but also hard to envision. How does someone who visits a museum, national park, or war memorial — or who watches a documentary or visits a website — collaborate with professional historians?

War Department letter from 1797
A 1797 letter in the War Department collection – War Department Papers.org

One form of professional-public history collaboration was featured by Marc Parry recently in The Chronicle of Higher Education: the use of “crowdsourcing” to help digitize historical sources. Parry focused on an experimental program being run by George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, in which volunteers are recruited and (briefly) trained to help transcribe copies of 18th century U.S. War Department documents — originals of which were lost in a fire in November 1800.

As we’ve written about here at AC 2nd, other early versions of historical crowdsourcing have included the U.S. National Archives employing volunteer “citizen archivists” to transcribe records, tag images, and edit Wikipedia articles, and the University of Iowa enlisting volunteers to transcribe its substantial collection of Civil War letters and diaries.

(I made my own contribution to this practice over Labor Day weekend, when I took advantage of Ancestry.com‘s offering free access to all of its U.S. census records to amateur genealogists like myself. Not only did it let me continue my exploration of my family history — something I wrote about on my personal blog back in April, when the 1940 census was made public — but I had the chance to collaborate with others: filling in missing data about individuals who might be part of someone else’s extended family, and helping to correct errors either in transcriptions or in the original taking of information. For example, in the 1900 Census, my great-grandfather on my mom’s side has his last name misspelled and his middle name appears instead of his first name. Beware: this kind of research is utterly addictive. It very nearly prevented me from completing several more pressing projects…)

Parry acknowledges the obvious problems with crowdsourcing: quality control and efficiency. He notes the experience of University College London using volunteers to help transcribe over 40,000 manuscripts in the Jeremy Bentham Papers. Subsequent study concluded that having library staff could have done the transcriptions over twice as fast themselves, had they not been forced to spend their time moderating volunteer submissions. And Edward Lengel, editor-in-chief of the George Washington Papers at the University of Virginia, described such projects as worthy experiments, but professed himself skeptical of their ultimate value:

…because members of the public who have not been trained in documentary editing are never going to be able to produce complete editions to the same level of accuracy that trained professionals will do… I just think it can never be an alternative to traditional documentary editing for a major project.

Fair enough. But I still find myself excited whenever I hear about historians and archivists appealing to the general public for help.

First, it has obvious applications for teaching. Some history professors have already partnered with Wikipedia, devoting entire courses to having their students work on the editing of articles and portals in that online encyclopedia — which has a page dedicated to helping instructors set up such projects. If I were a U.S. historian, I would certainly consider assigning (or presenting as an option) student participation in a crowdsourcing initiative.

Second, crowdsourcing not only saves money in the short term for organizations that often face shrinking budgets, but it helps to demonstrate the value of history by involving the public in the work of historians. In his conclusion, Parry paraphrases Sharon Leon, director of public projects at the George Mason new media center:

…the biggest benefit? Crowdsourcing engages scholarly projects with a larger audience, Ms. Leon says, giving volunteers a feeling of investment and participation in the work of history. In helping to prove the public value of humanities projects, that’s no small thing.

Third, it pushes back against the late 19th/early 20th century professionalization of history and related disciplines. While I value that process for helping to enhance the quality of historical research, writing, and teaching, it has also tempted historians down dangerous paths: into elitist assumptions about who owns history; into academic niches where we publish for each other on increasingly narrow topics with little concern for how we serve those beyond academe; and into the fallacy of equating profession with vocation.

Being called to do something is not necessarily the same thing as being paid to do it. And those who are salaried and tenured do not have a monopoly on the passion, curiosity, and talents that help us to understand the past.

So I loved how one of the War Department project volunteers — Jaré Cardinal — explained her participation in crowdsourcing:

What better thing to do than to sit in a nice cozy office at home, with your computer, and find out what the guys from 200 years ago were saying about this or that?… Some would say that’s an awfully lonely life. But I’m a grandmother of four. …It isn’t like I’m a recluse or anything. It’s just I’m very excited about history and the fact that you can access all this stuff that you couldn’t before.

Read the full Chronicle article here. And if you’d like to volunteer for the War Department project, click here.

– Chris Gehrz

Cross-posted at The Pietist Schoolman

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