Crowdsourcing the Civil War: Preserving the past and future

If you’ve ever had to do research in an archive or been lucky enough to have to transcribe original documents, sometimes it may seem like there’s no end is sight (especially if you work at one of the archives or libraries trying to find a way to transcribe and digitize your collection). This article was a short interview with Nicole Saylor, the head of Digital Library  Services for the University of Iowa Libraries.

Like untold numbers of historic sites and libraries with Civil War collections, Saylor and the University of Iowa Libraries began looking to try and transcribe their vast Civil War diaries and letters collections in anticipation of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War (which started this past July). But they quickly realized they were short on man-power, money, and time. What is a digital librarian to do? Well, ask and you shall receive! Saylor and her colleagues “crowdsourced” the Civil War by digitizing the letters and diaries and making them available to the public. They created a website where transcribers can choose a document, transcribe it in a niffy box, and email it to them for review. The letter I transcribed last week is being reviewed by Saylor’s team as we blog!

Saylor said she had no idea how successful the project would be, and even faced resistance from staff members asking “is the public qualified to transcribe?” She simply stated they weren’t looking for perfect, but for engagement. Well thay certainly got that and more, when the site crashed it first day due to the overwhelming traffic. Several transcribers who have spent numerous hours on he project have told Saylor they feel as if these writers have become members of their family. Gotta love Civil War nerds, right?

This project at the University of Iowa Libraries is very similar to the “What’s On the Menu?” project being undertaken at the New York Public Library. Both projects represent steps towards not only engaging the public, but actively enlisting their participation in the continued success of the collections and institutions. Such a project ten years ago would have been unheard of! But not all historians necessarily feel the same.

Engagement and participation, yes. But the public transcribing? Can that be their domain as well? The internet has opened up questions of authority and ethics for historians. Is transcribing something better left to eager interns and historians? Or could we think of other institutions who could benefit from reaching out to the public for their help? What potential downsides could such a project create? Would it be more time-consuming to weed through other transcribers work that to do it yourself? Whether you’re a Civil War nerd or not, it is a very cool idea that you have been a part of preserving part of the past. So go on, and pick a letter to transcribe!

The Machine is Us/ing Us

The The Machine is Us/ing Us is a video uploaded in 2007 by Kansas State professor Michael Wesch.  The video presents an overview of the internet & Web 2.0 but perhaps the most interesting part of the entire video is the ending.  Wesch puts the recent advances of technology into perspective, raising important thoughts that are just as relevant as ever.

Despite reaching over 11 million views the Cultural Anthropology professor did not intend to make such a popular video that the blogosphere would quickly take by storm.  In fact Wesch originally created the video for his Digital Ethnography class and sent it only to his colleagues to gather feedback.  From there it spread and the video was being mentioned in blogs & used as a discussion piece in courses.

With the SOPA & PIPA controversy at barely two-weeks old it breathes a new life into the videos declarations of rethinking; copyright, authorship, identity, ethics, governance, privacy, and ourselves.  The truth is that we can never fully be done addressing these issues, because just like technology itself they will continue to evolve as time goes on.  I believe this cause for reevaluation is healthy.  It has been easy to become indifferent to certain issues such as copyrights that have manipulated by companies such as Disney, despite their ironic recent misstep.

Through all of this it has become clear that those who do not understand the internet technology change are naturally fearful of it.

-Colin Musselman (me)

The internet & Web 2.0 has had it’s fair share of criticism; from the MPAA & RIAA lobbying against ‘online piracy’ to the fear of over-personalization.  Even the title of the ‘Machine is Us/ing Us’ implies a negative & fearful expectation for the audience.  But the constant bashing of personalization & cautions of ‘the computer learning too much’ is something I do not agree with.  In fact, I feel that this is something that we should very well embrace.  Yes, the computer does learn from us.  This is great.  What is the worst thing that has happened to someone from this?  Receiving ads that are relevant to your latest google search?

A scary computer that recommends you watch The Mighty Ducks 2 because you rated Toy Story 3 four out of five stars on Netflix


Also the idea of ‘us’ being the machine is something that can be easily construed into a straight-to-DVD horror story.  Human computation is in my opinion one of the greatest and sophisticated concepts today.  Just ask Luis von Ahn, a Professor at Carnige Mellon who has taken the human computation concept to the next level.  First by integrating it into his invention of captchas (those funny looking human-checks) by helping digitize books & his latest project Duolingo having users translate the web while simultaneously learning a new language.  For more in-depth info you can watch this TEDxTalk of his I was able to see in person.

Seen this before? Every time you enter one of these you help digitize a book. MIND = BLOWN

The most important part of all of this is the emphasis on discussion and I believe this is what Wesch was getting at.  His video seemed to not have the message to be timid/afraid about the future of technology but instead be aware of it.  Instead of reacting to the evolution of technology with caution we should discuss it, test it, push it to its limits, see what happens, learn from it, and continue to do great things that change the world.


What’s on the Menu? Database

The New York Public Library runs a database called “What’s on the Menu?”  The database’s organizers have scoured restaurant menus from the 1840s until the present day to illustrate the kinds of food people ate and how much they paid for their meals.  This website shows that when used as primary sources, menus provide fascinating insights that tie cultural, economic and social history together.

The website breaks down into a few headings, perhaps the most important of which are entitled “Menus,” “Data,” Dishes,” and “Blog.”  By clicking on “Menus,” visitors can see pictures of actual menus from restaurants from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Viewers can click on the images to see them in larger, blown up versions that are easy to read.  I am not entirely certain as to what the “Data” section is supposed to be used for.  The database’s designers encourage viewers to use this section for their own research and projects, but unfortunately the “data” that the website offers is largely unreadable.  There are a few links that open up as Excel documents, but when I looked at them they were largely written in “computer language” that seemed to have no rhyme or reason and appeared to lack significance.  The “Dishes” section allows viewers to explore specific items from various menus.  Clicking on  “Fruit Salad with Whipped Cream,” for instance, takes viewers to the exact menu and page that the dish is found in.  People can then see exactly how the dish was classified (as an “entrée,” “appetizer,” etc.) and how it compares in price to other items.  The “Blog” section brings viewers to the New York Public Library’s main blog.  Unfortunately, there isn’t an abundance of posts related to What’s on the Menu?  However, the blog is useful for highlighting what else the New York Public Library is focusing on at the moment.

The Library admits that the database is a work in progress.  The project began last year and so far, the project seems off to a solid start.  However, it still has a long way to go until it is complete.  As noted above, the “Data” section needs to be re-examined.  Project organizers are also adding more menus and descriptions of items.  They want to include more menus that actually describe what each dish includes and do not simply list what a restaurant offered.  These images will undoubtedly provide even greater details about what people ate and how their food reflected social and economic issues of their time.  As it progresses, I can see how the site can be an interesting and valuable tool for historians and anyone intrigued by the intersections of food and culture.

The one persistent thought that ran through my mind as I explored this site was that it raises the following question:  What exactly can (or should be) considered “historical evidence?”  Prior to seeing this site I had never really thought about how menus can serve as historical evidence that can teach us valuable lessons about an earlier time, but the site makes a convincing argument that menus can indeed do so.  When thinking about what kinds of primary sources to use in my research, I typically think about the traditional evidence that historians use:  letters, journals, speeches, music, etc.  What kinds of “different” sources have any of you used in your research?  For public history students, what does the study of public history tell us about what can be considered a legitimate primary source?


Wikipedia and Its Place in the Field of History

Roy Rosenzweig’s “Can History be Open Source?” brings up many relevant questions concerning the relationship between academic history/historians and Wikipedia. Though he ultimately supports a greater integration of historians into open source, free Internet sites such as Wikipedia, the beginning of his article thoroughly outlines the seeming incompatibility between the “laws” of historians and the set up of Wikipedia. Besides his premise that history is a “deeply individualistic craft” rather than a communal effort, his most important insight for me was Wikipedia’s emphasis on neutrality.

As future/current historians, we all know the value and necessity of arguing a point in our works. To this end, in addition to the weaker bibliographic information, anonymity, deemphasis on status (an individual with a PhD is not given prominence over a “typical” Wikipedian), and different value placed on certain facts (such as in the section where he is talking about James McPherson and what Wikipedians emphasize in their post on Lincoln as opposed to McPherson, or where Rosenzweig states Wikipedia is fueled more by popular news than academic historiography), Wikipedia appears to be the antithesis of “proper” history.

However, Rosenzweig is successful in two things: his attempt to legitimize the facts and articles on Wikipedia as factual, and arguing the venue of Wikipedia (as a free, open source, easily accessible site) would be a wonderful and important avenue historians could take to integrate a wider audience into historical works and debates. His point that Wikipedia is also run/edited by white, educated males and has a Western bias was also a very interesting point in regards to discussing history.

Honestly, I use Wikipedia to look up what year so-and-so was born. Or what year that movie was made. And that’s about it. I cringe, I’ll admit, when student cite Wikipedia as a source in their papers. Yet this article did somewhat assuage my fears that their information was entirely misguided. Despite the potential, as Rosenzweig outlines, for false information to stay on the site, Wikipedia apparently is factually accurate in general.

Though I feel Rosenzweig makes a good argument for why historians should interact on a larger basis in voluntary communities such as Wikipedia (NARA’s “tagging” archived documents online comes to mind), I’m going to have to argue that the non-historical community would not widely accept accessible, online historiographical information. Part of the reason, I believe, people love Wikipedia so much is because it’s quick and easy. There’s no reading multiple articles to come up with your own analysis, no weighing historiographical arguments, no reading introductions or paragraphs about context. There’s “boom. Fort Sumter was fired upon on April 12, 1861 and it hit the fan.”

While I would love for journals like the JAH to be online, free, accessible, I don’t believe it would either catch on like Wikipedia has, nor do I think it would open the pool of who was posting in these journals. I also agree with Rosenzweig that a majority of professional historians are not ready or willing to give up the tenets of their profession, such as hierarchy among PhDs, antiquarians, etc. Maybe these historians are the ones whose retirement we were discussing last week, but as it is, Wikipedia and academic history, though they have some crossover potential, are at this moment still inherently yin and yang.

(I would like to add that I was questioning my own resistance to calling Wikipedia compatible with academic history as I intend on going into academia. Did everyone have this reaction as well, or do you think there’s a divergence between academic and public history?)


Flickr is a free photosharing site. It allows you to create a profile and upload photos to a format that makes them easy to share with friends, family and the general public. Flickr makes it easy to get started. In addition to step by step instructions when creating a profile, it also provides a tour of the site that explains all of its features. Aside from uploading photos, you can comment on other users’ uploads or mark images that are especially interesting to you as favorites, allowing you to easily return. Flickr also lets you add people to photos to easily alert other users who may like that image. One feature that I found interesting was the guest list. This feature allows access to images that you choose for people who do not have a Flickr account. On that note, it also contains privacy settings that limit who can see photos on an individual basis.

Two features that I thought were especially useful were the map and linking. Flickr allows you to upload collections of photos from your account to a separate website. This feature is helpful for institutional accounts because they can connect the photos on Flickr to their main webpage. It also could be used by bloggers to share Flickr collections through that medium. The map feature allows you to attach photos to a specific location. Again, this type of technology could be utilized by historical institutions to teach about events or themes through photos.

The search feature is a great way to explore the Flickr world. When searching it brings up photographs tagged with that term as well as groups, individual photographers and places associated.Flickr also allows you to comment on photos. One piece of this feature that was interesting was that you can comment directly on a photo.

The Flickr Commons is the most obvious historical aspect of this site. The Commons provides users the opportunity to help describe photo collections from various institutions across the globe, such as NASA, The National Archives, the New York Public Library, and Smithsonian. Users can add tags and comments to any of the photos available in The Commons.

Flickr also allows you to organize photos into sets and collections, as well as create groups to aggregate photos with a common theme. Some examples of historically minded groups are