Crowdsourcing Culture and Implications for Professional Labor

The 2013 New Media Consortium Horizon Report, Museum Edition, identifies crowdsourcing as a digital topic on the near horizon, which the report defines as within a year or less of wide-scale adoption by a significant number of museums and cultural institutions. Indeed, 2013 appears to be the year that crowdsourcing really took off in the public history world, though the concept is by no means brand new. More and more museums and other cultural institutions are using crowdsourcing as a method to collect and process data, from the New York Public Library’s “What’s on the Menu?” project, to the Smithsonian’s digital volunteers initiative to transcribe documents, to the Historypin web site and app, which is entirely based around crowdsourcing moments of historical memory around the world. Some institutions see crowdsourcing as supplemental, while other projects make the wisdom of the crowd their primary focus and mode of operation. However you look at it, this growing enthusiasm for crowdsourcing public history raises big questions for the field: is crowdsourcing an activity of labor or leisure? Does looking to volunteers to perform work for the institution devalue the labor of public history professionals? Perhaps most importantly, what is the role of historians in a crowdsourced field?

The print project will start by examining digital public history theory and scholarly works on crowdsourcing as a way of doing digital public history. Roy Rosenzweig’s Digital Public History, Rosenzweig’s essay “Can History be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past,” Brabham’s paper “The Myth of Amateur Crowds,” and Crowdsourcing our Cultural Heritage, a book of essays that focuses on instances and issues of crowdsourcing will provide a solid basis for discussing what crowdsourcing is and how it is used by cultural institutions. The project will also study crowdsourcing through a labor history lens and will discuss what labor is, the value of labor, and the implications of unpaid work on the idea of labor as a commodity. In exploring the philosophy of inherent value of labor, the project will also examine the history of public history, museums, and archives, and will attempt to determine the effects of class, education, and perceptions of history and memory on the individuals that make up the crowds that public history institutions tap.

Lastly, the project will analyze a handful of case studies, reports, and well-documented crowdsourced digital projects to determine present state of crowdsourcing in the public history field, and the effects of crowdsourcing on public history institutions and their users. These include Writing History in the Digital Age, University College – London’s Transcribe Bentham project and findings, and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Lodz Ghetto project. By examining actual instances of crowdsourcing and the interactions between user groups and institutions, one may determine if the labor of public history professionals is devalued by the free labor of crowds, or if it is instead more valued due to the efforts and involvement of users in the institution’s day to day work.

One Reply to “Crowdsourcing Culture and Implications for Professional Labor”

  1. This is a solid proposal. You have two bodies of literature, work on crowdsourcing cultural heritage and a set of historical scholarship on labor. With that in hand you are going to examine in depth several different crowdsourcing projects run by museums and historical societies and evaluate if the projects are exploiting participants or if they are doing things that are in line with their missions.

    If you were to do this, I’d suggest you use some of this thing I wrote to help frame one side of the argument (http://www.crowdconsortium.org/wp-content/uploads/Digital-Cultural-Heritage-and-the-Crowd.pdf ). That is, I make the case that crowdsourcing for cultural heritage orgs is not exploitive but is instead part of a rich tradition of volunteering for the development of public goods. To that end, I think you would also likely want to make sure that your labor history perspective also focused a bit on the history of volunteering for libraries and museums. That is, there would seem to be places where that is civic duty/public service that are different from labor but I really don’t know that history well. So an engaged historical take on volunteering and it’s relationship to labor would really be valuable.

    My main suggestion for where to take this would be to end up in a situation where you aren’t saying “Crowdsourcing History: Good or Bad?” but where you do something more nuanced and lay out what kinds of things seem to be on solid footing and which seem to be exploitive. That is, if you ended up with a framework for what is ethical from the historical perspective on labor and volunteering.

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