Crowdsourcing with the Help of Citizen Historians and Archivists

In our last post, we provided insight into how we find information for our clients. We explained that we spend most of our time in the field at libraries and archival repositories because, even in the era of Google, most of the historical records we’re after just aren’t online. Maybe they will be one day, but not any time soon. That’s not to say that public libraries, government agencies, and cultural institutions aren’t doing their best to digitize their collections and make them accessible online. Many repositories have embraced the power of the crowd to carry out their public-service oriented missions, which is good news for the general public and historical researchers like us who have insatiable appetites for finding and interpreting historical information.

All kinds of repositories have implemented digital platforms and are “crowdsourcing” some of the traditional job functions associated with professional historians and archivists. This term has been around for almost a decade thanks to Wired contributing editor Jeff Howe. Since then, citizen historians and citizen archivists (both popular terms used to describe amateurs and volunteers alike) have helped transcribe records, tag images with keywords, and provide context for collections from within their homes, outside the bounds of brick and mortar establishments. The term “citizen [insert professional title here]” is not without controversy. Some professionals believe the term devalues the nature of professional historical and archival work and prefer terms like “digital volunteer.” The Smithsonian Institution prefers the latter, while the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) uses the term citizen archivist.

No matter how they’re labeled or what their credentials may be, willing participants from the crowd are a boon for the types of repositories we work in. From a practical standpoint, citizen historians and archivists help cash-strapped repositories that don’t have the funds or manpower to process backlogs. Digital engagement with historical documents also helps to keep primary source materials better preserved because there are less people handling them. Plus, from the perspective of researchers, we like being able to search for and analyze relevant records with a few clicks of a mouse, which saves time and resources on our end. Of course, not everyone embraces crowdsourced projects. There are some professionals who worry about quality assurance, for example, but institutions have implemented guidelines for digital volunteers as well as backend controls to ensure professional oversight. By now, it should be clear that the crowdsourcing phenomenon isn’t going away any time soon.

We love crowdsourcing here at Taylor & Hammel because, well, we love history. In the words of Archivist of the Unites States David Ferrerio, we believe that both professional historians like ourselves and citizen historians and archivists can help repositories “better understand and then describe” the documents and collections they hold. There are many crowdsourcing projects we could tell you about today. For example, NARA established its Citizen Archivist Dashboard in 2011, which lets digital volunteers do a wide range of activities like tag images to make them more easily found online or edit articles on their “Our Archives Wiki.” We could tell you more about it, but we suggest you hop on over to this post that provides more details on crowdsourcing projects happening at NARA and other major cultural institutions.

In honor of Black History Month, we want to highlight a few exciting projects that have caught our attention.

In 2013, the University of Louisville Libraries put a call out to citizen historians and archivists, asking for their help in transcribing the African American newspaper The Louisville Leader. Published between 1917 and 1950, the community paper featured local, national, and international news, and once had a weekly circulation of 20,000. The collection was put on microfilm in the late 1970s and digitized in 2011, but the collection won’t be easily searchable until full-text transcriptions of the articles are completed by digital volunteers. Want to help transcribe? Click here to get started.

Another crowdsourcing transcription project called The Colored Conventions Project was launched just this year by the University of Delaware. The goal is to provide students, historians, and researchers with digital access to the historical records of the “Colored Conventions.” These state and national conventions were organized by “free and fugitive Blacks from the 1830s until well after the Civil War,” according to the project website, and dealt with issues related to social, political, and legal justice. Citizen historians and archivists are asked to support the project by transcribing minutes of the conventions. Those who decide to volunteer also have the option to share their story and explain why they wanted to get involved. Select stories will be featured on the project website.

The power of the crowd has also provided insight into two African American photographic collections. Both the Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) in Pittsburgh and the Maryland Historical Society (MdHS) asked the public for help in identifying people, places, and events in their respective collections. The CMOA’s Teenie Harris Archive is a collection of 80,000 images taken by Charles “Teenie” Harris, a photographer for the newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier. The MdHS has a collection of 6,000 images taken by Baltimore Afro-American photographer Paul Henderson. Both collections span similar time periods ranging from the 1930s to the 1960s-70s. Members of the local communities who shared their knowledge were able to provide a wealth of context for these collections that would have otherwise never been captured.

We’ve only touched on a few crowdsourcing projects to pique your interest in this recent phenomenon that’s taken hold in our professional sphere. Now we’d love to hear your thoughts on crowdsourcing and whether or not you’ve participated as a citizen historian or archivist in a crowdsourcing project. Feel free to comment below!