Crowd Sourcing and its Historical Applications

Crowd sourcing and its effectiveness is a highly debated topic in the realm of history. The idea of crowd sourcing is that you get people from where ever people are interested to look at documents and transcribe, or decipher, what they mean. There are some sites that allow you to contribute information regarding a subject while others are merely translations. Crowd sourcing will only become more widespread as the access to the internet grows, and the potential to outsource large amounts of work becomes easier. This concept has many benefits to add to the field of history, as well as a few drawbacks, but the key is to learn from the mistakes that get made, and to try to minimize the amount of problems that these type of sites have, because the process is a much needed one.

Crowd sourcing lets large numbers of people  look at documents, and decipher what they say or  review already transcribed works, so the information is easily accessible by the public for research needs, or if they just want to find specific information on something. It allows the work that would take the staff of a library, or an archive to sort through massive amounts of information fairly quick with the help of people who are interested in browsing items that would be previously unattainable. It allows people to use the internet to breach the gaps of distance and see sources they otherwise would never see. Crowd sourcing allows for a more comprehensive and specific informational search which allows for more thorough investigations of topics.

Not everything about these sites is good. In just looking through the four I browsed, and where I contributed, I found many errors that can really hinder the usefulness of the sites for historical purposes. You have the issue of people, who really have no historical background possibly translating the documents, and depending on how you interpret what is important in the document, you may not tag it in the right spot, or you may find different parts important, and tag those. This leaves the document which may be really important to a certain topic left out of the search. Many of the site let anyone on to help with the effort that it be as open as possible, and therefore letting the opportunity for mistakes to be made increase. People of any education level and of any background can translate. You also have no way to know, unless someone reviews it, if the translation is actually correct, or if there are not tons of spelling errors. In certain cases you may not even know where the information added came from or how true the information is. These are just a few of the sources and how they compare to the Martha Berry Digital Archives.

The one I chose to contribute to was the DIY History website. This site is run by the University of Iowa, and it looks at civil war diaries, transcontinental railroad documents, cookbooks, accounts of pioneer lives in America, all sorts of primary documents that you would never see unless they were transcribed on the internet. A lot of the sources, while available to those who know about them, would go untouched do to the general lack of knowledge of their existence. I was concerned however with the ease at which I was able to just jump right in without any sort of background information given. There was no request to see why I was there or if I knew anything about the history of any of the categories that were there. The language of the letters was really hard to read in places and I am sure that on a few translations I made some mistakes, where I feel a trained eye for certain handwriting styles would not, but those are the trade-offs we make. Overall the site was really easy to navigate and the documents that I could read got translated fairly easily and now those people who want to know about specific accounts of the people in Iowa during the civil war will have access to do just that. When compared to the Martha Berry site I feel like it was organized better into subgroups but the ability to tag, as in the Berry site, is a crucial part of the effectiveness of the site and DIY just didn’t have that.

Another site that I looked at was the New York Public Library’s what’s on the Menu? site. I actually thought that this site was really cool. The idea of crowd sourcing things like recipes is great. This alleviates the issue of interpretation since the recipes are going to be the same across all backgrounds. The website its self was a little bit of a letdown since you couldn’t review anything, when I tried to anyways, but the idea behind this as a way to share recipes throughout history, or to look up dishes you want to try but don’t have room for all the storage of the old fashioned cookbooks. These type resources are what you would want.

Another site that many forget uses crowd sourcing, and that is Wikipedia. Wikipedia shows, in my opinion some of the best and the worst elements of the crowd sourcing argument. It allows anyone to contribute whatever they want to the site. Usually the information has a corresponding endnote if the user isn’t lazy, but you never know if you can trust what is put on a site like that. It is great for using the footnotes and going to find the original source if that is your goal. It is great for general sourcing but you can trust where the information came from just by looking at the article. It does however, in allowing for so many people to post, have the greatest selection of topics, and articles in the world. You can start a lot of projects just by going to the site and looking in the footnotes for possible sources to use.

Now we come to the Martha Berry Digital Archives. After looking at the other site and seeing what they have to offer, I prefer the layout of the DIY History website over this. The breakdown into subgroups makes it easier to find things. The tagging that this site has is something that I think all of the other sites should have but don’t. Archival sites though are different than other crowd sourcing sites in that they are merely transcribing and people can’t start their own topics and add false information. There are bound to be errors though with anything that requires interpretation. It is important to have a system of rechecks to the system to eliminate the possibility of misreading or interpretation and I think the archives do a good job of that. Hopefully in the future we will see more concern on the background of the individual, to make sure that they have some experience in the field of history, but as it stands now the benefits of having a way to get large amounts of information, from areas that would otherwise take years to sort through, is a much better plan then just allowing information to sit gathering dust, where it could provide insight into a much debated topic, much like this one.

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One thought on “Crowd Sourcing and its Historical Applications

  1. drcjsnider says:

    Very nice analysis on the pros and cons… I especially liked your insight on the helpfulness of a reviewing mechanism.

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