Wednesday, May 28, 2008

crowdsourcing and history

This piece in the Boston Globe about digital approaches to history really gets across the point that doing digital humanities is about more than just digitizing the printed word. I think it can be hard for scholars to get that, as Dan Cohen has pointed out.

It emphasizes projects like the 9/11 Archive and Flickr Commons as ways that crowdsourcing can contribute to primary material that historians have to work with.
Cohen sees the potential for partnerships between the lone professional historian and crowds of helpers, particularly as the quantity of historical material increases. It's possible, for example, for a historian of Colonial America to read every document written by the founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (though such a task would still be time-consuming). It's altogether another thing for a historian of modern America to tackle the vast output of the Bush White House. "One person can't read it," explains Cohen, "but a hundred or thousand could read individual documents and tag them with keywords."
The title of the piece, "everyone's a historian now" is a little deceptive, perhaps to provoke a reaction. At the end of the article, the importance of the professional historian is reaffirmed.
Having the crowd on your side is a good thing at certain stages of the research and publication process," says Cohen. "But at other times, historians will still want to be by themselves, sitting at their computer screen, using their own words to knit things together and make sense of the past."
As someone who did some graduate work in history awhile back, I always enjoy reading Dan Cohen's take on digital humanities.

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