Crowdsourcing as Community Empowerment

A few weeks ago I came across The Library of Virginia’s Making History transcription project. Anyone with an internet connection can view digitized primary source documents from nineteenth-century African-American freedom suits to letters penned by Patrick Henry and transcribe them for public viewing. The project provides both a digital version of the document and the plain text box side by side. The user-interface is easy to navigate, as the project is mainly interested in extracting the plain text for searching purposes. Other users can review the finished transcriptions, then the library staff downloads them to the digital collections. The project description states that crowdsourcing “empowers communities to make their own history” and that this cultural institution “supports this empowerment by inviting the public to be our partners in making our collections more visible and more accessible.” The volunteer’s engagement with the sources has as much weight, if not more, than the end result of better access to the documents.

The “Transcription Maximized; expense minimized? Crowdsourcing and editing The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham article from the Transcribe Bentham project seems to base a lot of weight in the success of the project on the cost and time of producing quality, transcribed documents. While this is an important factor in discussing and evaluating digitization projects, a more important factor is whether or not the project involved the public in a meaningful way. The authors state that only 259 volunteers did any actual transcribing out of the 1207 who registered, but that is significantly more people who engaged with the history than just the two full-time staff members of the project. The authors state that this 21% participation partly resulted in the complexity of the text encoding the project initially required of its users. The transcription tool, which would eventually provide TEI XML encoding to the documents, hindered some of the voluntary contributions.

In his blog post, “Crowdsourcing Cultural Heritage,” digital scholar Trevor Owens states that “at its best, crowdsourcing is not about getting someone to do work for you, it is about offering your users the opportunity to participate in public memory.” I agree with this statement that public, volunteer-based projects conducted digitally through cultural institutions is a great source for community engagement with history. A lot of the focus in these projects is the end result of better access to these important historical documents, available online in one digital repository. People from seasoned scholars to young students in history can then engage with the same primary sources across cities and countries.

Yet, the digitization of the sources themselves by a community of volunteers results in engagement with the sources on another level. As Owens stated, instead of merely reading the texts, manipulating the data, and analyzing their historical meaning, the voluntary, digital transcription allows the user to contribute to the furthering of scholarship and to “participate in public memory” by creating history. The tools involved in such projects are important, as they can deter possible contributors. The tools provided need to support the democratized environment that these community engagement projects present and depend upon.

What is Digital History?

What is “Digital History”? Is it a field of study, a genre, a methodology, a promise? Can it be defined? What is it not? How can I, a young graduate student studying “Digital History,” succinctly define this minor field to future employers? How well does the title chosen for this minor field, “Digital History:Theory and Practice,” articulate and represent what I will learn and produce? This is the key issue in a majority of the readings this week discussing the origins of humanities computing, the advantages and disadvantages in employing digital media in historical research, and the elusive definition of the term. The work, Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader, by Melissa Terras and Edward Vanhoutte even states that no universal definition exists. That text alone includes numerous articles and debates between scholars over time that incorporates many dynamic definitions. “Digital History” encompasses a field of study and a methodology, and is dynamic, collaborative, fluid, and generative.

Digital history is a field of study, as numerous undergraduate and graduate programs offer majors, minors, and certificates in some form of “digital humanities.” As discussed in “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History,” these courses and programs focus on the theory of digital media and humanities disciplines and strive to emphasize the new narrative forms, non-linearity, and new arguments that digital media can create for a varied audience. They seem to focus less on the concrete technology, though some scholars want programming to be an essential element. The “Grounding Digital History in the History of Computing” article stresses the ability of programming to provide tailored code for historians. George Mason requires its doctoral students in history to complete two courses in digital media and history, the Clio Wired courses. One course introduces the students to theory, and the subsequent course teaches the practice of web design using HTML and CSS. These courses strike a good balance between the two. Digital history can and does encompass both theory of technology and history, as well as the digital tools themselves.

Digital history is also a methodology, a way to tackle historical questions and problems. Cameron Blevins best communicated digital history’s ability to create new historical arguments in his article, “The Perpetual Sunrise of Methodology.” He argues that historical scholarship needs to focus on the methodology of digital media in actively presenting new historical arguments, not just promoting its potential to do so. This is an important aspect of digital history that George Mason’s Clio Wired courses introduced to me in the first year of the program: What can you do with digital media and history that you cannot do without it? How does digital media unveil new historical arguments, or generate new historical questions? Blevins clearly shows how this is possible with his analysis of nineteenth-century Houston newspapers. The script he wrote to identify geographic terms revealed a regional based geography, rather than the traditional nationally based geography. He set a new historical argument in motion.

Digital history also involves more than just historians; it is collaborative effort involving museum curators, librarians, and computer programmers, among others. But it also allows historians to learn and practice those skills themselves. Almost all of the digital projects and articles from this introduction to digital history feature numerous authors, collaborators, and editors. Andrew Prescott argues more than once that digital humanities needs to continuously involve collaboration between scholar, curator, and technician. Digital history involves collaboration across professions and institutions of knowledge. It promotes new historical scholarship, shows the non-linear complexities and multiple perspectives of the past to a variety of audiences, and prompts new historical questions.

Digital Collaboration

I recently came across the Medical Heritage Library while looking for potential research topics. Started by Harvard in 2009/2010 under the Open Knowledge Commons, this site holds almost 50,000 digitized documents, films, and images related to the history of medicine. It is a “collaborative digital library,” in which Yale, Harvard, the National Library of Medicine, Columbia, the Wellcome Library of London, and other libraries and institutions devoted to the subject and its digitization, upload and curate open access primary sources. The contents encompass six centuries and are all text-searchable. One of the site’s goals is to foster a “digital community” with research, support, and education in the history of science and medicine.


The MHL is illustrative of the advantages of collaboration in the digital world. It allows everyone with access to an internet connection to learn about these materials in a centralized location. Because of this virtual consolidation, users are able to view content from across the United States and across the Atlantic- a truly international approach. The project also allows any institution to contribute possible materials and to publicize their contribution. Rather than focusing on individual scholarly collaboration, the MHL is a larger-scale collaborative project between libraries and other appropriate institutions.


Open Topic Proposal

For the open topic, I want to discuss scholarly collaboration within the digital media world. By “scholarly,” I include work produced by historians, scholars in general, and history collecting institutions. Since collaboration is a central tenet of doing digital media in history, I think the class needs to examine this topic further. For example, we could explore the advantages and disadvantages of digital project collaboration, especially compared to analog formats. We could also talk about the initiation of collaboration, involving networking, advertising, and building a digital identity.

Some possible discussion points include:

    – How does digital media enable scholars to collaborate differently than without it?

    – Is collaboration in the digital world better?

    – How does one become involved in digital projects, whether initially or later on?

    – How do scholars advertise their projects in order to gain collaborative insights- how do we network in the digital world?

    – What different digital tools are conducive to collaboration?

Some possible readings include:

Dan Cohen, “Zotero and the Internet Archives Join Forces,” Dan Cohen Blog, Dec 12, 2007,

Douglas Linder, “Lessons Learned from Building the Famous Trials Website,” The Jurist, January 2001,

Michael Mizell Nelson, “Improvising Digital History in the Deep South Digital Desert,” History News Network, Dec 31, 2012,