Category Archives: D. Thomas

Is Crowdsourcing Digital History Useful

The big question is what can crowd-sourcing accomplish that many professional historians who have often devoted their entire lively hoods to such a subject can’t? Crowd-sourcing projects are apparently looked upon with disdain by many academic historians. But I believe there is some value to the use of crowd-sourcing digital history projects. There are only so many of these professional historians within the world, and even if they are skilled at their jobs, they are things they miss or make errors of their own. Admittedly not everyone who participates from the public is going to be correct as well, that may be inevitable. But for history as a subject to thrive, it must get fresh blood every now and then. I believe Crowd-sourcing to be a good way to get such people involved. It may even convert some people to an interest in history.

There are pros and cons to everything, and crowd-sourcing digital history is no different. The pros involve allowing new people and fresh ideas into a historical project. Maybe they will catch something the original creators of the archive did not, maybe they will be able to improve upon it. Making historical sources more accessible to the public could go a long way to opening the eyes of the people to the importance of history. The cons of it are just that: opening it to the public will bring in all kinds of people. Inevitably there will be some who get something flat out wrong or are not even remotely qualified to help with such a project. But I figure this would be a small issue, considering who would even get involved with such a project if they didn’t at least have a passing interest in the subject.

I’ve found quite a four crowd-sourcing projects on recent US History:

  1. Cambridge Public Library Historic Newspaper Collection In this project, public volunteers are allowed to correct the text of OCR scans of Historic Cambridge Newspapers and magazines, including those dating from the the first quarter of the 20th century. Requires public members to register on the site before being able to contribute.
  2. Brooklyn Museum Collections In this project, the game is to vote on the relevancy of identification tags on the museum’s  collection, including several pieces made in the 20th century. You earn points for each round of voting. It requires registering with the site before you are allowed to play.
  3. Civilian Archivist, National Archives It is essentially exactly as the title says. Allows public access to tag images and records, transcribe historical documents, help index the 1940 census, contribute to articles and share photographs. Problem is that you are required to register on the site before you an edit and that you must wait for the site administrator to approve your registration
  4. Korean War Mysteries Crowdsourcing of Korean War documents on missing POWs from that war. It’s less editing and more sharing information to help close these mysteries. It is doubtful that you will be considered for it unless you demonstrate proficiency in the subject.

I contributed to the Brooklyn Museum Collections and comparing it to the Martha Berry Digital Archive, it’s relatively simplistic. All you have to do is register and then start playing the game “Tag you’re it!”, and vote on the relevancy of the tags already assigned to a collection piece. It’s purely art, no documents compared to the MBDA. Its laughably easy, the only reason I imagine they make you register with the site is to prevent people from incorrectly messing with the tags. Anyone not really interested or there just to cause trouble is likely not going to bother with registering.

Crowd-sourcing has a few cons, but overall I see the potential contribution to the digital history field as very good.

-Dexter T. Thomas