David Patrick McKenzie

Digital Public Historian

Popularizing the Historical Process

This week’s readings (Week 12) focused on what can broadly be called “citizen history” or “crowdsourcing”–inviting public participation in the process of creating knowledge, not just waiting to receive the end product.

The four articles, Roy Rosenzweig on Wikipedia, Jeff Howe’s Wired piece on crowdsourcing, a Smithsonian report [PDF] on the Institution’s collaboration with the Flickr Commons project, and a History News forum, all discuss issues with various aspects of crowdsourcing, but ultimately come to the right conclusion: the positives outweigh the negatives.

Crowdsourcing–whether a transcription project (like Papers of the War Department and the New York Public Library menus project), a research project (like the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Children of the Lodz Ghetto or the National Postal Museum’s Arago portal), or a collaborative project (like Wikipedia)–can certainly have inaccuracies. But you don’t have to crowdsource for inaccurate information to get out there–even scholars, not to mention firebrand political commentators (couldn’t resist…) or textbook writers, can get history wrong.

But the above projects have tapped into the passion and knowledge that we can find dispersed in the public, and have used it to answer questions and, more broadly, produce knowledge. In 2008 I attended a session on crowdsourcing projects at the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums conference. The two projects discussed, NPM’s Arago (presented by my friend Christine Hill Mereand) and the Library of Congress’s participation in Flickr Commons, took different approaches. Arago relied on a registration system before a researcher could begin contributing. LOC, by contrast, opened up the photos to all sorts of comments on the Flickr Commons.

Both projects relied on staff interaction, to filter comments and provide resources–indeed, if I remember correctly, that was Christine’s main job. Nonetheless, both projects greatly stretched the capabilities of the institutions, answering research questions much more quickly than they would have been answered by staff members or other researchers. The example I remember best from that presentation was a LOC photo of a tea house in an unknown town: someone recognized his/her hometown in Massachusetts. Now that information is available to researchers–someone researching the history of that town would never have found that photo, because it would not come up in searches for that town on LOC’s catalog. From what I remember of this presentation, they had to deal with little in the way of inaccurate information.

Perhaps more importantly, crowdsourcing projects are not only building on the knowledge of the public, they are inviting public participation. As my friend and former colleague Elissa Frankle, who works on the Children of the Lodz Ghetto project, stressed in her Ignite Smithsonian presentation, museums (and probably even more so academics) too often assume people will, and must, be passive consumers of information–and in the end, will get turned off by history. But as all of these projects show, there is a way to harness this passion. The Papers of the War Department reports 356 registered users in the past seven months–some (like me) who have done one or two documents, others who have done many more. Now all of these people have a connection to history.

So, then, what of expertise in a crowdsourced world? Why are all of us in this class pursuing this advanced degree? If anyone can do history, what is our role?

This not an either-or proposition. What we, as professionals, must do is provide the context, provide the guidance. We are the ones whose jobs (at least when we can get them!) include keeping the bigger picture in mind. As Rosenzweig noted, many Wikipedia articles focus on the minutiae–questions that we often deem to “small” to research. The Smithsonian report notes a seemingly low participation rate–one comment per 2,089 views. This raises the point that for us, being a historian is a job, not just a hobby on the side to juggle while we otherwise work, have family and social lives, etc.

We are the ones who have the time and the obligation to keep the bigger picture in mind, and to convey it. As I’ve found in working at museums and historic sites, questions from visitors have helped me hone my own interpretation, tested my own knowledge, and even helped lead me to new questions to research. Visitors at the Alamo asked me about Antonio López de Santa Anna’s visit to Washington in 1837. When I decided, several years later, to research just that, I stumbled upon a dissertation topic–and here I am, pursuing it.

It can be much the same with crowdsourcing. Seemingly inaccurate information or questions, whether they’re said online, in a classroom, or at a historic site, can provide “teachable moments.”

At the same time, opening our process up for scrutiny and participation brings a wider understanding of what we do. Crowdsourcing is no panacea for the troubles that ail history in the United States today. But even with its drawbacks, it offers a glimmer of hope, and can be part of the cure.


  1. You make a great comment about the process of gatekeeping. Who does verify or moderate or edit? After reading the Rosenzweig article I got the feeling that staff was available 24 hours a day to spot inaccuracies or tampering and make corrections, but now I’m wondering who comprises the staff? How can one or two people possibly do an efficient job of policing intellectual (or non-intellectual) contributions? The registration process of sites like Old Weather appear to be one way to address this concern of approval and maybe the requirement to log in and connect yourself with work you submit is one of the most effective gatekeeping methods to winnow out the chaff from the wheat. I’d be curious to know whether registration is now the norm for crowdsourcing or whether it remains an option.

  2. I agree completely with your comment that crowd-sourcing does not raise an “either/or” dilemma for the “professional” historian. It can, however, change the type of work done by the professionals and the audience with whom they interact. As much of current academic work is done for the benefit of other academic historians (the work of public historians and the few popular academics aside), having to shift to engaging with a larger audience may be (read is) a very good thing.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: