Category Archives: R. James

Caveat Emptor: The Rise of the Bored Cheetos-Fingered WWII/Civil War/Vietnam Expert Armchair History Buffs with a Computer

Crowdsourcing digital history has been a rapidly growing aspect of the field of historical preservation. Utilizing the resources of the public, including personal effects of old letters, photographs, and other documents and objects, the amount of material, especially primary documents, has become readily available to a wide audience. Furthermore, many institutions have opened up crowdsourcing initiatives to the general public, where the ordinary person can take part in identifying, transcribing, and tagging scanned documents, photographs, paintings, maps, et al. This has allowed many archival collections to efficiently expedite the process of labeling the countless (and expanding) number of documents that are being scanned beyond the capacity of the archives. This allows collections to be completed in a very short time and at zero cost to the archives, the libraries, or organizations, often already short of funds due to budgetary cuts. While this new initiative a part of the general “digitalization of the humanities” could serve as a great tool for the field, there are a great number of inherent and long term risks that could be devastating to the historians’ and archivists’ craft.

There are benefits to this increasing movement. Digitization of many primary sources is a means for preservation, especially for paper products that were originally made using an acid treatment method. While there is a risk of being able to lose electronic data permanently, it is easy to create back-up copies and essentially the information will be forever preserved. The almost universal availability to the Internet also allows a wider access to this information for everybody, including professional historians, undergraduate or graduate students, and the WWII/Civil War/Vietnam armchair expert history buffs we all know and love…Labor-wise, having a ready pool of volunteers, students, and assistantships allows this kind of work to be done at a lower cost than hiring a professional archivist and at a much higher volume of productivity. Whereas as some projects might take years to accomplish, the mobilization of several thousands of students and WWII/Civil War/Vietnam armchair expert history buffs with nothing else to do but sit in front of a computer screen and munching on Funyons between episodes of Band of Brothers, could accomplish in a matter of months with the utmost enthusiasm.

With these benefits, I find the negative aspects of these movement to be outright disturbing. Perhaps I am a history major luddite at heart, however I see this as a cheapening and damaging to a field that already seems to be an anathema of vocationally-minded STEM wackjobs who have a propensity to dictate the terms of value to particular areas of study. If it wasn’t for the presence and advocacy of the great tycoons of Wall Street, history would certainly have been relegated further into the “worthless” degrees of philosophy and anthropology. Bah…


If I put it into these terms, would you want the world champion of Call of Duty or Halo to be the next head of the Army, or Dick Vitale to be the next coach of Purdue University’s basketball team? Absolutely not! It is disturbing that someone who has zero training in the field of history to hold the responsibility of tagging potentially valuable documents to the Cheetos-fingered WWII/Civil War/Vietnam armchair expert history buff. The ability to properly interpret primary sources is an advanced skill that is not even expected of undergraduate sources, in short it can be dangerous to wrongly interpret documents or improperly weight their value. Even as a senior history major, I do not feel comfortable in analyzing some of these documents; and my poor tagging skills have already testified to that fact. Employing these volunteers as a workforce can also undermine the value of historians and archivists. If there is a vast pool of labor willing to work for free, it incentivizes institutions to cut back on funding such positions. We have seen this in other occupations, librarians for example.


Beyond that, I would close with a caveat emptor. Progress is not always something that can be stopped and the perception of its unanimous benefits are subjective. As a (hopefully) future historian, I would say this. Do not let the WWII/Civil War/Vietnam armchair expert history buff define this field of study. Otherwise, we may be on the inevitable path of becoming like the History Channel; Nothing, but dribble that caters to the great-unlearned masses in a Kardashian-bedazzeled, pimped-out Escalade to hell.


As for my contributions, to digital archives I focused on the Martha Berry Archives, The New York Public Library Map Warper Project, the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers, and the US National Archives. Overall, the Martha Berry Archives and the Smithsonian Digital Volunteers are the most intuitive and user-friendly sites for newcomers (although I would argue Martha Berry Archives is the best). Their layouts are reasonably similar and do not require much time to learn. The New York Public Library Map Warper Project, is very interesting in that it seeks to use old maps dating from the American Revolution through the contemporary era and the volunteer “warps” the old maps using a polygon interface system to superimpose the old map onto a modern satellite image of the same area. This allows Urban Historians to be able to track changes in city planning, street development, and lots; especially in the years after 1870 as cities began to expand. While I think this project is incredibly interesting, there are many steps to the process that makes it complicated and one who is unfamiliar with maps, will have an exceptionally difficult time with it. Many of my attempts came out skewed-enough when superimposed that I simply scrapped my efforts to one who has much greater practice with it. I did find that the New York Public Library was the easiest to sign up for and there are numerous tutorial videos, as opposed to just a written list of directions. If you like maps and are eager for challenge, I would urge you to use this means as a way to get involved in helping urban history. There is not much to misinterpret, only being unable to properly locate streets or use the polygon sketching software.