Public Historians and Shared Authority on the Web

Looking at the National Archives Citizen Archivist program, one can see the potential for outsourcing some jobs normally reserved for professional historians. The Archive asks ordinary people to either tag or transcribe various documents from within the archives to help expand their collection and make it more navigable. I looked at Vietnam Era records that needed to be transcribed so they could be word searched by current or future historians. While the papers are already typed and easy to read, they aren’t word searchable. Some of the other records they were asking volunteers to transcribe were handwritten and would pose a larger challenge but these were easy to transcribe a few pages in a short amount of time. It was very cool to see some of the official reports on Vietnam that were deemed classified at the time, though transcribing them was not as cool.

This kind of program, asking ordinary people to help professionals, is nothing new. NASA has been doing something similar where they ask people to review photos taken by various telescopes to identify anomalies and other interesting features. Archaeologists do the same thing with Google Maps. There have been countless sites found because some retiree with nothing better to do combs through satellite imagines looking for features that may lead to new archaeological discoveries. Just recently some 80 sites were found in the Amazon rain forest making specialists rethink our understanding of ancient peoples and the way they used their environment.

Outsourcing relatively simple tasks like these to ordinary citizens can help professionals focus on important lines of research while not necessarily ignoring the moreĀ monotonous lines of inquiry. It also helps people who are no longer useful to society contribute something and give them a sense of purpose. What’s better than that?!


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