Tag Archives: Crowdsourcing

Connecting the Public to Public History

Nam-ho Park, “A Half-Day Walk through Hanoi,” CC license

There are many implementations and activities that can connect the public to public history using online digital collections. As Sheila A. Brennan and T. Mills Kelly wrote in 2009, the digital humanities are comfortable with the “read-write web.” The Web 2.0 (or 1.5 as they call it) allows public historians to collect and share the stories and narratives of people through their direct participation. Digital history project also benefit from the volunteer efforts of people to identify and enhance their narratives, help to piece together the narratives of others, and provide valuable information and context.

A great example of this can be found in the project “Invisible Australians” that used a facial detection script, tagging, photos, and people to analyze the “White Australia Policy.” Other successful crowdsourcing and public history collaborations include Flickr Commons,  created as a “forum for institutions to share their rich photographic collections. . . and provide insights into how knowledge, skill, and abilities of librarians, archives, and museums can converge in the Web 2.0 environment to provide collection access to new. . . audiences,” (Smithsonian Team Flickr). The Smithsonian Institute’s collaboration is sharing its rich photo archive with Flickr Commons has created an amazing public-private partnership.

In this spirit, the following list includes the kinds of public history implementations and activities that having a basic digital collection enables. 

  1. Tagging, Identification
  2. Transcribing
  3. Exploration
  4. Social Media
  5. Contests
  6. Visual analysis
  7. Direct Collaboration
  8. Geo-spatial mapping (see image at top of post)
  9. Memory-making
  10. Storytelling

Omeka has emerged as the premier platform for open-source digital public history projects.  With a variety of templates, plug-ins, and customization options, most of the items on the above list can be achieved using Omeka’s open source web platform.  For my own project, I will be able to use information from and about historical markers in Nashville’s downtown core. This includes temporal and geographic locations, marker text, and related primary sources. These resources could ultimately be used to create explorations via walking tours, contests for users, storytelling via historical contextualization, direct user collaboration via tagging or identification, and social media. While many of these goals remain quite distant, the fluid nature of DH and the trajectory of rapidly advancing technology make these goals possible.

It remains important to consider several factors that remain critical to the long term usefulness, credibility, and sustainability of digital archives. First archival projects need to be clearly identified. There are many genres and meanings of the word “archive” as noted by Trevor Owen. Ranging from a records or storage management system to what some critics call “artificial collections,” properly defining the mission, scope, and function of an a digital archive is essential (What Do you Mean by Archive?). Likewise the issue of metadata is important. Metadata is not always exciting on its face, but it provides the foundation on which successful digital history projects depend. As the guide for “Describing Metadata” suggests: “Metadata is the glue which links information and data across the world wide web. It is the tool that helps people to discover, manage, describe, preserve and build relationships with and between digital resources” (Describing Metadata).

Coupled with high standards of historical scholarship, digital projects can produce and make available large collections that can be used to disseminate and distribute information to the greater public while also providing countless primary sources to current and future historians. As Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig emphasized in Digital History, “Collecting history through digital archives can be far cheaper, larger, more diverse, and more inclusive than traditional archives. This democratization however, does not mean compromising the quality of the historical work.” (Why Collecting History Online is 1.5).

Works Cited:

Brennan, Sheila A., and T. Mills Kelly. “Why Collecting History Online is Web 1.5” Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media. 2009.

JISC Digital Media. “Metadata: An Introduction.” (first section – “From Metadata: a definition” to “Metadata often reflects the community it has come from.”

Kalfatovic, Martin et al. “Smithsonian Team Flickr: a library, archives, and museums collaboration in web 2.0 space.” Archival Science (October 2009).

Owens, Trevor. “What Do You mean by Archive? Genres of Usage for Digital Preservers.” The Signal: Digital Preservation (blog), February 27, 2014.

Sherratt, Tim. “It’s All About the Stuff: Collections, Interfaces, Power, and People.” Journal of Digital Humanities 1.1 (Winter 2011).

The History of Digital Public History

1) How has the work of digital public history changed over time?

Digital Public History, as an emergent field, has dramatically evolved over its short twenty-year history. Here is a summary from each of the three periods explored as part of Module Two:

There is a great deal of experimentation in this phase. Examples include crowdsourcing, full-text, digitized images, zoom in/out functions, audio, apps, and a variety of organizational tools through which to view and present digitized historical materials. The scope of each of the three projects surveyed was different. Two focus on specific events, i.e. Chicago Fire and NYC blackouts, while the other focuses on a specific topic, i.e. Af. Am. pamphlets from turn of the twentieth century (Progress of a People). All three are appropriately narrow in scope, but each builds out and has updated (or not) differently. The NYC Blackout Project site looks like it hasn’t been updated since 1998 and the Chicago Fire & Web of Memory site perhaps needs to be reorganized completely after growing online for nearly twenty years.

A definite move to use java/flash was evident from 2002-2009 digital public history projects. Sources are presented in a more visual and interactive way, but formatting and navigation is intended for desktop users. These projects are based on larger events and seem to focus on the notion that we should “complicate” history. This is part of the larger effort to move beyond the typical characters studied in U.S. history and American culture. This trend to uncover troubling parts of our historical narrative are equally, if not more, important. Projects during this phase include: Slavery in New York, Raid on Deerfield, A More Perfect Union: Japanese Americans and the U.S., and Jasenovac: Holocaust Era in Croatia.

More recent digital public history projects are less about presentation of a set or distinct group of materials with a somewhat prescribed lesson or learned outcome and more about engagement through contribution and feeling invested in the project. Formatting also move past java and flash and is friendlier for different sizes and types of screens. These project are much, much bigger — tackling millions of pages or sources rather than presenting a thematic “online” exhibit or digital project. This phase shows that digital projects are fluid rather than final. Examples include: Lincoln at 200, Bracero History Archive, Manifold Greatness: Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible, and Operation War Diary.

2) What should qualities we be looking for as markers of good digital public history work?

The qualities of good digital public history are in many ways the qualities of two complementary goals of historians more generally: effective teaching using primary sources and student engagement leading to a deeper understanding of history. This involves the organization and presentation of primary source materials in a way that encourages students and the general public to become “detectives” and to think critically and historically about primary sources as well as context, subtext, and significance. For more see Sam Wineburg’s “Thinking Like a Historian” (TPS Quarterly).

3) What are promising new directions in this field?

Promising new directions in the field of Digital Public History include more clearly delineated categories for the projects themselves. Several categories have emerged and include: teaching resource, virtual tour or exhibit, archival body of sources, digitized sets of data, and blog/essay. Another promising development is the more reliable and sustainable use of open-source technology rather than plug-in or software based projects that can limit the user experience. Crowdsourcing projects or creating large digital  collections should be wary of data-entry inconsistencies and should clearly identify the purpose and potential use of the sources being digitized.  Conversely, digital projects aimed at K-12 learning  should be careful not to be too limited in scope. As a whole, Digital Public History remains a dynamic field, full of possibility, and intentionally wide-ranging.


How to Read Wikipedia


Wikipedia is no longer simply a open sourced encyclopedic reference. It is no longer just a website or a “thing,” it has also become a verb. If a person has a question or wants to know something, they are likely to “wikipedia it.”  When Wikipedia first emerged on the world (-wide-web) stage, educators and academics alike condemned it as non-academic and unreliable. However, today even these groups have, in part, reconciled with the notion of Wikipedia as a source of knowledge, reference, and a valuable tool for basic research.

At the same time it is more important than ever for teachers and students alike to understand the edit and content process and development of Wikipedia from behind the curtain. If users rely on Wikipedia as the first stop for information then essential questions should follow for responsible users: Who is creating the entry? Who is editing? What changes are being made, and why?

To answer these questions, users should go to the “History” tab to see a timeline of edits made and check the user profiles of those doing major edits. In addition links to page view statistics and revision history statistics (see media at top of blog post) can give a broader visual breakdown of edits and editors. This information can help the user to view editor profiles, assess their bias and credentials, the frequency of edits, and the general historiographical development of the entry. (I struggled with how best to use the “talk” tab.)

For example, with the Wikipedia entry for “Digital Humanities” reveals several interesting and important factors about its creation and development. The page began in 2006 as a definition with separate sections to explain DH objectives, lens, themes, and references. In 2007 and 2008 editors clearly believed DH to be focused on the computing aspect of DH project, with an entirely new section on Humanities Computing Projects (with three addition subsections). By 2012 the section headings seemed more settled, though expanded:

1 Objectives
2 Environments and tools
3 History
4 Organizations and Institutions
5 Criticism
6 See also
7 References
8 Bibliography
9 External links

The definition of DH also continued to shift, expand, contract–with many slight word changes that seemed to focus on the digital process and learning rather than the machine itself and programming. From 2014-2016 the open source, web-based nature of DH is clear and the discussion about DH as interdisciplinary and a transformative pedagogical development seems to be settled. The definition, application, and scope of DH continues to evolve. The basic organization of the page has remained although sections have been renamed, eliminated, split, and images have also been added.

Contributors and editors come from a wide range of persons connected to the Digital Humanities: librarians, professors, but also persons with no profile or title, like John Unsworth and Matilda Marie. There also appear to be institutional oversight and monitoring. In particular, there are several professors associated with the University of London such as Simon Mahoney and Gabriel Bodard, both of whom have profile and biographies attached.

Nearly 15% of all major edits are being made by digital humanists who have content specialization in the classics. There were also people more focused on computer science early on rather than academics focused on the humanities. The definition of “Digital Humanities” and particular phrases certainly generated the most controversy. That and the fact that the word “controversy” was actually added to one of the subheadings. It shows that DH and those who use it still struggle with defining its uses as well as the study of DH. What should a digital humanist be able to do, know, and to what end? These questions seem to drive issues that stir controversy.

This Wikipedia page reflects DH developments as a new area of intellectual inquiry, expression, and dissemination. But as a part of the larger theoretical exercise, analyzing this Wikipedia entry from the back end proved to be immensely eye opening. Not simply from the standpoint of understanding the “what” (its process and content evolution) but also deciphering the “who” behind Wikipedia. As author and software engineer David Auerbach states, “Wikipedia is a paradox and a miracle. . . . But beneath its reasonably serene surface, the website can be as ugly and bitter as 4chan and as mind-numbingly bureaucratic as a Kafka story. And it can be particularly unwelcoming to women.” As of 2013, women made up less than 10% of Wikipedia editors. As Ben Wright noted, “This disparity requires comment.” I would add that as digital humanists and educators, our awareness of this issue (and others such as the dominant Western-centric lens of Wikipedia) can be the first step in addressing these problems. We can also commit our efforts to being part of the solution.