My latest Chronicle article explores that question through the story of an innovative historical crowdsourcing project at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media.
Here’s an excerpt:
On November 8, 1800, fire ravaged the federal War Office, in Washington. The agency’s files went up in smoke, leaving a gaping hole in the nation’s historical record.
“The most important window into the early republic had basically been boarded up,” says Christopher H. Hamner, a military historian at George Mason University.
Not anymore. Through years of shoe-leather detective work, scholars have recreated much of the archive by tracking down copies of nearly 45,000 documents. But now they face another challenge: transcribing them from digital images.
Their solution is to enlist the public to help, free. The experiment, run by George Mason’s Center for History and New Media, tests an increasingly important question: How will the Wikipedia model of open participation change humanities scholarship?
Many people have taken part in crowdsourced science research, volunteering to classify galaxies, fold proteins, or transcribe old weather information from wartime ship logs for use in climate modeling. These days humanists are increasingly throwing open the digital gates, too. Civil War-era diaries, historical menus, the papers of the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham—all have been made available to volunteer transcribers in recent years. In January the National Archives released its own cache of documents to the crowd via its Citizen Archivist Dashboard, a collection that includes letters to a Civil War spy, suffrage petitions, and fugitive-slave case files.
The crowdsourcing boom is opening the ivory tower to people like Jaré Cardinal. Ms. Cardinal runs the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum, in western New York. Working in her home office overlooking the Allegheny River, she joins the 760 volunteers who have answered the call to transcribe War Office records. Their only official training is a short set of guidelines.