Raab on Forbes: Engaging the Public In History

Crowdsourcing Technology Offers Organizations New Ways To Engage Public In History

Read Nathan Raab's article as published on Forbes.com

You may not think of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, or Thomas Edison when you hear about online crowdsourcing, but the National Archives and Smithsonian Institution would like to change that.    Both organizations, along with their smaller counterparts across the nation, are using technology to engage the public in the discovery and preservation of its own history.  Specifically, people are tagging and transcribing images of important historical documents and artifacts from these institutions’ vast collections.  And while this process may sound arcane, it has the potential to change how we record and save history itself.

The National Archives has launched a website where you can help the organization record history. First, let’s look at how the technology was created and how it works.  Crowdsourcing is the process of using a large group of people, the general public, to accomplish a needed task.  The Internet has made it possible on a grand scale.  In January 2012, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) launched a pilot project that would allow anyone, anywhere to look at a scan or photograph of a historical document and write down what it says, a process known as transcription.  This information would then be shared with others, who could add to the work or correct it.  There is a process of citizen review, and ultimately someone at the institution takes a look.  In a sense, it is like Wikipedia, another crowdsourcing operation.  In this case, no account need be set up, and you need not have formal training.  You visit the site and hit the ground running. 

Later in 2012, the Archives open-sourced the technology, meaning that they made it free for anyone to download.  In the summer of 2013, using this same technological platform and adding its own modifications, the Smithsonian launched its crowdsourcing site, which it calls the Transcription Center, with a call for “Digital Volunteers.”

So do people want to spend their free time adding to the historical record?  Unequivocally yes, said both institutions in recent conversations with me.  “Within the first two weeks, we had a little over 1,000 pages loaded and virtually all had been completed or were quickly finished,” said Meredith Stewart of the Office of Innovation at NARA.

Go to NARA’s transcription pilot project pageand you can see the result.  Read a letter of Winston Churchill to Franklin Roosevelt or a memo to President Lyndon Johnson about Project Gemini.  All these are brought to you by anonymous users.

On its newly launched site, the Smithsonian now has given the public access to over 4,000 pieces and has several hundred active digital volunteers.  This pales in comparison to the 8 billion or so total records that NARA maintains or the 137 million objects, 2 million library books and 136,194 cubic feet of archival material at the Smithsonian.  But the projects are expanding and not contracting.

Why now?  ”It’s exploding.  We are finally getting a critical mass… We are reaching a tipping point,” said Ben Brumfeld, an early developer of crowdsourcing technology and creator of an alternative software, FromthePage.”

An overall trend toward transparency and citizen participation has come at a time of evolving technology. “Crowdsourcing is not a new idea.  The Oxford English Dictionary is an interesting early example.  It’s the tools and the ability for folks to participate in new ways that is really revolutionary,” said Pamela Wright, Chief Innovation Officer at NARA.

“Once government became more transparent, we saw a big influx from communications from volunteers who didn’t have a vehicle for their voices,” added Rachel Everett, CEO and Founder of Viderity, the contractor, who, along with the company New Signature, helped NARA create the technology.  “This all seems to be converging at one time.”

Other such crowdsourcing projects exist at approximately 30 institutions, such as at the New York Public Library, the University of Iowa, and Ancestry.  “Technology is opening doors for people to learn and explore and create an understanding of the world around them.” said Dr. Meghan Ferriter, who consulted on the project at the Smithsonian.  “There are a lot of people doing related and overlapping projects, but nobody’s connected all of the pieces yet.”

You can already see the ball rolling.  Ferriter notes that many organizations have to start work from scratch, but the Smithsonian is working on changing that.  She tells me, “In my role as Research Associate, I am in essence creating a series of recommendations that can be used here at the Smithsonian and elsewhere.  This is… something of a strategic plan. We are aiming to share best practices around the world.”  Read the Smithsonian’s recently published, future-looking e-book, “The Best of Both Worlds,” for more on the work that institution is doing.

What is at stake?  This is not an abstract discussion.  Few realize the state of our historical treasures.  Of the billions of historical documents held at other organizations of all sizes around the country, a fraction has been cataloged, meaning their contents or even location might be unknown.  Researchers daily discover material that no one knew existed.  Go to your local historical society.  You will be met with old card catalogs printed before many of us were born, full of partial entries.  This is an unavoidable product of hundreds of years of accumulated history and continually shrinking budgets.

In America, historical preservation has always been a democratic process.  Independent historical societies, such as Pennsylvania’s, where I am on the Board of Directors, safeguard important pieces of history, without which our historical record would be only partial.  These are in many cases private organizations, with very limited resources to undertake the expensive and time consuming process of digitization and transcription.  They rely on grants and private donations.  And with fewer and fewer people willing to take long and expensive research trips when so much is available for free online, historical organizations are struggling to evolve in an ecosystem where history is virtual and where if Google or Yahoo cannot find you, you do not exist.  Herein lies the challenge, the opportunity and the future. 

Ms. Stewart at NARA summed it up when discussing the experience of a university-run archive that introduced crowdsourcing.  “When they had folks get involved in transcribing, they started to get more donations, people really got engaged, their website traffic went up.”  This process can snowball.  The more people are involved, the more history is preserved, the more attention the organization receives, the more funders see value and donate, the more resources the organization has to devote to its mission, the more history is saved. 

Look several years down the road and you might see how from these seeds something large and consequential might grow.  What does the future look like in my hypothetical?  A researcher from Philadelphia visits the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and requests a folder of documents.  Within that folder, perhaps not referenced in the card catalog, is an Abraham Lincoln letter about the abolition of slavery.  The researcher takes a picture of the document with a smart phone, uploads it to a transcription website or a public database in the cloud, and then adds it to a database at the organization.  Someone from Iowa finds and transcribes it online.  Now a high school student in California locates the image and the text via a search of Google and uses the information for an essay. 

From historical discovery to publication, this has been done without anyone from the organization raising a finger.  But look at the result: a historical document crucial to our history has been located.  The process has involved a researcher, an online citizen archivist, and a student, separated by thousands of miles and with vastly different interests, but all of them Americans taking part in the discovery and preservation of American history.  This process could take less than an hour, cost nothing, and be replicated thousands of times per month at organizations of vastly different sizes.

This tree has yet to grow but the seed has been planted.  

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