The Library of Congress has just started an interesting project that falls under the general category of a phenomenon called “Crowdsourcing”. Here’s what they do: they post a mass of historical photos and invite visitors to identify and analyze the photographs in the collection. The U.S. National Archives is doing a similar thing with online versions of its documents and a few other organizations are following suit with archival material from a particular event – say a battle in WWII, the 1970 Bhola cyclone in Bangladesh, or the events of September 11 in the U.S.
Unlike Wikipedia entries, which don’t generate new knowledge but instead distill what has already been published, crowdsourcing submits to the wisdom of the crowd and generates new insights and information unavailable any other way. It’s a method that garners rich and complex results – sort of a radical way of conducting historical research, wouldn’t you say?
Here are a few examples:
They’ve uploaded their collection of glass plate negatives depicting early life in Australia to the Flickr Commons (one of the largest online photo communities). People have been chiming in to identify the photos and interpret their content, based on their own experience or their family history.
Several thousands of its photos are now up on that same Flickr Commons and the librarians are asking people to review and identify them. The LOC Curators were pleased to discover how quickly the gaps were filed in by amateur enthusiasts (military aviation buffs, aficionados of early baseball, amateur boxers, retired steel workers, etc). Here’s an interesting LOC blog about the project.
Visitors can zero in on a particular name on the Wall and attach a recollection, a document, a photo, or a link to other names on the wall. The site basically provides a scaffolding on which historical, social, and cultural information can be hung for future generations.
Started by a George Mason University history professor as an online place where people could post photos, videos, documents, emails, and recollections of 9/11. The quantity of material on this site is staggering – a quarter million private photos all relating to that one day in history.
I can see a rich range of student projects here. Perhpas an analysis of the results of one or more of these existing sites or perhaps the establishment of a new one to archive history as it is happening? A further interesting question for students to investigate might be “how accurate is crowdsourcing?” How do you know that the contributors know what they’re talking about? There’s an interesting article, written by the historian Roy Rosenzweig titled Can History Be Open Source? in which he evaluates the accuracy of historical entries on Wikipedia. He found that, while the style of the entries left something to be desired, the facts often checked out. And that’s the thing about phenomenon like social networking, collaborative wikis, and crowdsourcing – they have a tendency to be self regulating. And because the self regulation process stays with the entry, it has the added advantage of serving as a record of the process. A student can review the whole line of thinking and, perhaps, draw their own conclusions.