Crowdsourcing Historians

The public is one of the most important elements of public history. After all, what is the point of a public history project if there is no one to view it? That is why getting the public interested and involved is extremely important and archival projects are one way to do it. In “Transcription Maximized; Expense Minimized? Crowdsourcing and Editing The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham,” Tim Causer, Justin Tonra, and Valerie Wallace discuss the process of allowing the public to help transcribe the works of Jeremy Bentham in the Transcribe Bentham project. They state their surprise multiple times at the willingness of people to do this kind of work with no monetary incentive. Although the authors admit that they could have gotten a lot more done if they had just hired professional transcribers, Trevor Owens maintains that the end product is not the point of these projects. In his blog post, “Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage: The Objectives are Upside Down,” he argues that what is more important is that through these projects, the public becomes engaged with history and is viewing and analyzing objects and documents that they otherwise wouldn’t be.

The National Archives’ Citizen Archivist project is a great example of an archiving project in which anyone can participate. The public is invited to create an account and then can contribute by tagging items, transcribing documents, or commenting on items. There is a page with suggested projects and I chose to tag a collection of photographs created in the 1970s for the Environmental Protection Agency. I have to say that the process was super easy and I had fun analyzing the photos and trying to figure out every aspect of applicability to include as many tags as possible. I also found myself researching the subject matter of some of the photos to get a better understanding of what I was looking at so I could properly tag the item for a future researcher. I then searched a topic that interests me (jewelry), selected “Photographs and Other Graphic Materials” and continued tagging. I realized that I could search for something in which I am particularly knowledgeable (like my hometown) and do some tagging to help out someone else in the future. I found some aerial photographs of my hometown from the 1930s and found that I was learning more than contributing since urban renewal has dramatically changed the city since that time.

While audience participation and contribution can be invaluable in public history, Leslie Madsen-Brooks makes an important point in her article, “ ‘I nevertheless am a historian’: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers.” There has to be a trained historian to moderate all of this contribution. Transcribe Bentham had editors that reviewed the transcripts the public submitted. I’m not sure what the procedure is at the National Archives but I imagine that if I added a tag that was completely unrelated to an item, it would be removed. Although it is important that people get involved in preserving history, the historian must be able to be an authority and moderate what people contribute (when it comes to archiving projects) and interpret historical documents for public consumption.

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