Considering the scholarly disdain of crowdsourcing websites such as Wikipedia, one would assume the same negative response to the crowdsourcing of historical archives online. However, the combination of decreased funding for historical preservation and the push for digitization of documents allows for a unique solution: crowdsourcing archives. Projects that allow crowdsourcing facilitate the use of volunteer labor from the general public in order to label, catalogue, and sort through the scanned files of physical archives. Some websites go as far to allow participants to completely transcribe documents. Crowdsourcing websites that guide online volunteers through the process of correctly cataloguing documents can be a creative solution to limited funding and pressures for online access to archives.
With any solution, however, there are positives and negatives. On the positive side, crowdsourcing allows for online archives to quickly sort through thousands of documents and label them for ease of search for research. Crowdsourcing also allows for the general public to become involved in the historical process and feel a sense of connection to the documents. With the exception of the expense of creating the website software, crowdsourcing is low cost for the archives or sponsor since the contributors work as volunteers. On the negative side, crowdsourcing grants access to unreviewed documents to the untrained public—which allows for error in transcription and tagging. Documents with incorrect tags do not allow for searches to locate them—and the documents may lose their usefulness if they cannot be accessed.
In researching crowdsourcing history, I have looked over five digital archives that allow crowdsourcing—four of which are reviewed below.
The University of Iowa’s DIY History Project allows participate to transcribe documents from the Iowa Digital Library and features collections of 19th century documents. DIY History is rich in its collection of personal diaries and letters including selections from pioneers, the Transcontinental Railroad, and the Civil War. Although the project should be noted for its ease of access—no registration is required, ease of transcription is another matter. All documents are handwritten and require complete transcription for text search capabilities—making the project difficult for those untrained 19th century script, spelling, and shorthand.
The Citizens Archivist Project, a division of the National Archives, provides three crowdsourcing opportunities: tagging, transcription, and contribution. For beginners, the project allows tagging of photographs and artwork from the past two-hundred years of American history. Participants, after a quick registration, can tag labels to files for future search records. Participants can also transcribe a collection of American history documents, mainly public records, from the 18th through late 20th century. Transcribers can select easy, medium, or advanced documents—though the easy and medium sections are complete. In addition, participants can also contribute their own historical documents, or those of family members, to the site.
The War Department Papers allow transcribers to contribute to over 45,000 papers from the United States War Department from 1784 to 1800. The site caters more to academic contributors as it matches participates to their research interests to select documents. Documents on this site include public records, speeches, and letters from key figures in the Early Republic and the archive itself is a goldmine for research. That being said, this is not a crowdsourcing site created for the casual editor looking for a quick project—documents require full transcription of 18th century script and can be tedious.
The Smithsonian’s Digital Volunteers Program allows participants to review and label a plethora of materials from different collections from the Smithsonian Museums. This review, however, will focus on the collections under the National Museum of American History—which include certified currency proofs from Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, and California. The Smithsonian’s interface guides participants through a series of questions about each proof and provides ease of editing and a catch for incorrect questions. Although the “A” states are nearly complete, California’s collection allows for both labeling and reviewing descriptions created by others.
In addition to reviewing the four sites above, I worked as a contributor on both the Smithsonian’s project and the Martha Berry Digital Archive. The set-up of contributing is similar in that they both require a simple registration and a set series of questions about each document including author, date, and tags. The Smithsonian’s search capabilities for editors are a strong point; contributors can search and select the exact document they wish to edit while MBDA’s site only lets editors “view a random unedited document” and hit next until they find one they want to edit. MBDA does allow for a community of editors and a system of badges for editing achievements.