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Part 6. Public History on the Web: If You Build It, Will They Come?
The potential of public history has been profoundly altered by the democratization of the web. Oscar Rosales Castañeda’s essay “Writing Chicana/o History with the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project” describes how students and faculty created a digital public history project to document local activism, indicating the vivid role it played in shaping their lives as well as historical knowledge on the contemporary Pacific Northwest. In “Citizen Scholars: Facebook and the Co-creation of Knowledge,” Amanda Grace Sikarskie draws on her experience with the Quilt Index to make a case for lay historians actively contributing to research through social media. Finally, Shawn Graham, Guy Massie, and Nadine Feuerherm offer a behind-the-scenes look and some early conclusions on documenting Canadian memories, in “The HeritageCrowd Project: A Case Study in Crowdsourcing Public History.”
Writing Chicana/o History with the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project
The Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project (hereafter referred to as the Seattle Civil Rights Project) has allowed a city to retell its rich, multicultural civil rights narrative. Since its inception in 2004, it has produced a wealth of information that allows Seattle’s history to be retold through research reports, digitized documents, and dozens of oral history videos, allowing the fusion of oral history tradition with the newly emergent medium of the digital research project. In 2005, coming off the initial release of the newly minted Seattle Civil Rights Project, a group of undergraduate students, myself included, met with University of Washington (UW) history professor Dr. Jim Gregory and UW PhD candidate Trevor Griffey to dialogue on expanding the civil rights project to include the local ethnic Mexican/Latino community in Seattle. This meeting resulted in what became the largest archive documenting the Chicana/o Movement outside of Southwest United States. Nationwide, this reverberated throughout academic circles as a model for undergraduates to use when producing and writing digital history for K–12, college, and public audiences. (See the images on the web version of this essay at http://WritingHistory.trincoll.edu.)
From the outset, the Chicana/o Movement in Washington State History Project (hereafter referred to as the Chicana/o Movement Project) was intended as a point of departure, an exploration of a local narrative long relegated to obscure, unpublished materials and oral histories passed down from one generation to another. For many Latinos in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest, the thirst for knowledge was tempered by a sense of isolation from the ethnic Mexican/Latino cultural hubs in the Southwest and East Coast, as well as a sense of historical omission in regional narratives. The need for addressing this dual marginalization proved to be the impetus for initiating the Chicana/o Movement Project research.
Latinos in the Pacific Northwest
Interest in Chicana/o activist history at the University of Washington was central to our contingent of freshman students as early as 2002. Most of us arrived from eastern Washington, with some from the Seattle area, as we formed the leadership of the UW chapter of El Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan (the Chicana/o Student Movement of Aztlan), or MEChA. For many, this was the first time we came together with other like-minded youth to organize around educational access, economic justice, and civil and human rights. The previous leadership graduated the summer before we arrived. Their departure left an organizational vacuum that prompted us to take over the reins of the leadership to ensure organizational continuity.
Among the initiatives we pressed forth were educational meetings to share skills and knowledge as well as to train ourselves in organizing strategies. We understood that there was a relation between ourselves and the space we inhabited. Far removed from the cultural hubs in the Southwest, yet part of a cultural diaspora that adapted to its new surroundings, we imagined a way of being and collaborating with other communities that represented a smaller portion of the local population, in contrast to other places in the South and East.
Our first encounter with this ethnic Mexican/Latino narrative in the Pacific Northwest came through a class instructed by Dr. Erasmo Gamboa. Though the class introduced material that we had not seen in textbooks on Washington State’s history, the material mostly related the rural experience. The urban narrative existed, as we later found out, in various journal articles, master’s theses, document collections, and published ephemera that were inaccessible to many readers in our community. As a means of addressing this issue, we undertook the task of consolidating material pertinent to our history in Seattle and the University of Washington.
As this project was underway, we received an e-mail from an alumnus who was a graduate student at California State University, Northridge. While researching on Google, he happened on a web article by former UW activist Jeremy Simer, “La Raza Comes to Campus,” published from Dr. Jim Gregory’s independent research seminar at the University of Washington. The discovery of this article impacted how we viewed digital media in collecting this history. We knew that the best way to preserve and build on our work was to make it accessible to anyone curious about the subject. The intent was to make the work available through our organization’s website. After serving out my term as the chapter cochair, I looked toward fleshing out this idea and was successful in acquiring a research fellowship for 2005–6. I argued that the project would “aid in incorporating scholarly work from the Pacific Northwest into the study of Latinos on the West Coast, enhancing the already existing historical narrative.” I was also fortunate to receive a second fellowship from the UW Center for Labor Studies, which was presented at the center’s annual ceremony, where I met Dr. Gregory. As a consequence of having a sizable class from 2002, we had students looking to initiate senior projects. We now had the research contingent and resources to unearth our collective vision.
Urban Activism in Seattle
The project intended to examine the local movement’s unique character, in relation to its spatial confines in a city long known for its vibrant history. Unlike the cultural nationalist current prevalent in cities and communities along the Southwest, activity in Seattle mirrored the Third World and internationalist tendencies of the San Francisco Bay Area. Further, unlike the Southwest, activity in Seattle and other communities in Washington State differed, as there was no significant record of social and political mobilization within the ethnic Mexican/Latino community.
Upon reading the primary sources, it was clear that our project would shift focus. A survey of this narrative from early rural farmworker activism to later urban movements had not been written. As we discovered, original writings had been fragmented in four- to five-year increments. Furthermore, much of this story lay in a tapestry of documents buried in archives since at least the 1970s. This forced us to utilize a three-pronged approach, with some researchers conducting oral history interviews, some digging into archival material and newspaper articles, and others writing material and digitizing rare, tattered documents that sat in the file cabinet of the UW chapter of MEChA for decades. We did this to weave these writings on farm labor unionization, student strikes, urban and rural activism, and cultural aesthetic movements into one historical survey that covered the period from 1965 to 1980.
With the project taking form, local interest in the research slowly surfaced. Nationwide, polemic debate around immigration seeped into mainstream parlance. In April 2005, the Minuteman Project began conducting armed patrols of the U.S.-Mexico border under the pretext that borders were porous and susceptible to “terrorist organizations,” a reflection of the anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hysteria of the post-9/11 era. Soon this staunchly nativist group began patrolling the northern border, along Washington State’s northern counties. This right-wing anti-immigrant formation influenced policy makers, who, by late December of 2005, passed House Resolution 4437 (commonly referred to as the “Sensenbrenner Bill,” after the legislation’s primary sponsor, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin).
In response to this highly controversial, draconian legislation, immigrants and their allies protested en masse in the spring of 2006 in what was perhaps the largest wave of demonstrations in the United States in a generation. In the Seattle area, immigrants came out in force as never before. In a meeting, Dr. Gregory communicated that queries in search engines for information on the immigrant marches led, during this time, to our rudimentary project site (mostly still under construction). We were months from completing the project, and the need to tie events from the present day to our narrative was a reminder that, regionally, the narrative was still being written. Nevertheless, despite the lack of an accessible established infrastructure for the historical narrative, the demand for this information was visible. These events made our nascent project even more noticeable and further fed interest in regional scholarship.
Teaching and Researching History in the Present Day
Since 2005, scholarship on Latinos in the Pacific Northwest has resurfaced from the last flurry of activity in the early to middle part of the 1990s. Of note, one of the most recent collections of essays, Memory, Community, and Activism, edited by Jerry Garcia and Gilberto Garcia, expands this examination of ethnic Mexican communities in the Pacific Northwest by including cross-cultural collaboration in labor, the cultural significance of art in public space, the role of the church in community activism, and, most critical, the role that gender has played in community organizing in the region. In addition, Jerry Garcia also published a book illustrating the formation of the Latino community in Quincy, Washington.
Along with the aforementioned books, there are also recent articles, theses, and PhD dissertations that focus on Chicana and Chicano experiences in the Pacific Northwest. Aside from the Chicana/o Movement Project at the University of Washington, other research projects in existence or transferred to digital format include the Chicano/Latino Archive hosted by the Evergreen State College Library and the Columbia River Basin Ethnic History Archive hosted by Washington State University, Vancouver. The proliferation of these new sources within the last few years complemented and helped strengthen the Chicana/o Movement Project’s visibility. Our work confronts collective amnesia within textbooks on Washington State history and challenges textbooks on Chicana/o history to include the stories of northern communities. In effect, the literary definition of “borderlands” takes on different meaning as the experience at the U.S.-Canadian border region becomes a part of the larger historical narrative, augmented by the use of digital media to teach this unique history.
It has been over five years since the Chicana/o Movement Project was officially unveiled in August 2006. Three years later, a sister project, the Farm Workers in Washington State History Project, went live in September 2009. Following a pattern much like its predecessor, the latter project worked to acknowledge the history of union organizing for Washington’s socially and economically marginalized population of farm laborers. Besides influencing additional research projects, the Chicana/o Movement Project has also been used as required reading for U.S. history classes at the following institutions, among others: the University of Washington; Whitman College (a liberal arts college in Walla Walla, Washington); Washington State University; Western Washington University; the University of California, Los Angeles; and the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities.
These digital history projects, in addition to the larger Seattle Civil Rights Project, also have been featured in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives publication, various publications oriented toward oral history and diversity, and newspapers ranging from the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer to the New York Times and USA Today, and the local National Public Radio affiliate KBCS. The research has also been listed in the Civil Rights Digital Library and reviewed by the National History Education Clearinghouse. Likewise, the local Public Broadcasting System affiliate KCTS Seattle produced a brief documentary detailing the experiences of the first class of Latino students at the University of Washington, entitled Students of Change: Los del ’68, which used much of the background material researched by our project.
Perhaps most profoundly meaningful for many of us who produced the project are comments and e-mail messages from community members who have happened upon the project or were referred to the site by a teacher or professor. For many, it was their first introduction to the local history of the Latino community in Washington State. They validated not only the struggle in producing the material but also the reasons why it matters and why it merits further research. This project was one of the first projects nationwide to fuse academic writing and public history on the open web. Even more remarkable, perhaps, is that this project gave undergraduate students the opportunity to produce Chicana/o scholarship and has drastically changed the way that this history is taught in the state of Washington.
1. For detailed information on the project, see “About the Project,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/about.htm.
2. The Chicano Movement in the United States was, at its essence, the rejection of assimilation into the larger dominant U.S. culture that simultaneously sought to erase all semblance of cultural distinction (e.g. customs, language, music, ancestral knowledge) and to keep the community in a state of secondhand citizenship, locked in the cyclical poverty, disempowerment, and racism that were commonplace for many communities of color in the United States prior to the formation of the civil rights movement. See George Mariscal, Brown-Eyed Children of the Sun: Lessons from the Chicano Movement, 1965–1975 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005), 250.
3. MEChA is a student organization that has over four hundred loosely affiliated chapters throughout the United States. See “About Us,” Movimiento Estudiantil Chican@ de Aztlan, http://www.nationalmecha.org/about.html.
4. In Washington State, the emergence of a youth movement first took root in rural central Washington’s Yakima Valley with the emergent farmworker movement in 1966 and 1967 and established itself in Seattle with the first significant recruitment class of Chicana/o students to the University of Washington. See Jeremy Simer, “La Raza Comes to Campus: The New Chicano Contingent and the Grape Boycott at the University of Washington, 1968–69,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/la_raza2.htm.
5. See “Erasmo Gamboa,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/Erasmo_Gamboa.htm.
7. Oscar Rosales Castañeda, Maria Quintana, and James Gregory, “A History of Farm Labor Organizing, 1890–2009,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/farmwk_history.htm.
8. HR 4437: Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005, Bill Summary, Library of Congress, http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/bdquery/z?d109:HR04437:@@@D&summ1&.
11. Chicano/Latino Archives, Evergreen State College Library, http://chicanolatino.evergreen.edu/; Columbia River Basin Ethnic History Archive, Washington State University, Vancouver, http://archive.vancouver.wsu.edu/crbeha/home.htm. See also Oscar Rosales Castañeda, “Bibliography: Farm Workers in Washington State History Project,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/farmwk_bib.htm.
12. “Special Section: Chicano Movement in Washington State History,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/mecha_intro.htm; “Special Section: Farm Workers in Washington State History Project,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/farmwk_intro.htm.
13. “News Coverage about the Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project,” Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project, http://depts.washington.edu/civilr/publicity.htm.
14. Civil Rights Digital Library, http://crdl.usg.edu/topics/boycott_direct_action/; National History Education Clearinghouse, http://teachinghistory.org/history-content/website-reviews/24033.
15. Students of Change: Los del ’68, KCTS 9, Seattle, 2009, http://video.kcts9.org/video/1491354319/.
Citizen Scholars: Facebook and the Cocreation of Knowledge
Doing historical research and writing on Facebook or Twitter may still seem like a strange notion to some. Social networks once had a reputation as frivolous spaces in which young people entered into and out of romantic relationships faster than one can click the “like” button and where “older” people (read “over 25”) posted incessantly about the rare finds they made at the local organic farmer’s market and consumed in their latest meal. While these uses of social media have not gone away (stop telling me about your arugula!), the value of social media sites such as Facebook for historians, both academics and those outside academia, has become increasingly apparent. This essay seeks to present and contextualize the role of the lay historian—what I am calling the “citizen scholar”—in the production of historical research and writing through social media.
In her 2011 blog post “More Crowdsourced Scholarship: Citizen History,” Elissa Frankle wrote, “In the history museum of the future, curators’ work will be driven by our audiences’ curiosity, and their preference for inquiry over certainty.” This growing preference for inquiry over certainty, for co-creation of content rather than consumption of content, is the basis of citizen scholarship in social media. Through the lens of a case study of interactions with citizen scholars on Facebook, I seek to illustrate the small yet profound ways in which lay historians are crowdsourcing the production of historical knowledge.
Connecting through “Quilts of the Day”
I am currently a faculty member in public history at Western Michigan University. Previously, from 2008 to 2011, I worked as a doctoral research assistant for the Quilt Index, a digital repository providing preservation and access to images and metadata for over 50,000 quilts. In addition to my regular work, I also managed the project’s social media campaign, including a Twitter feed, a blog, a wiki, and our most popular social media channel, a fan page on Facebook.
As of this writing, in January 2012, the Facebook fan page has over 2,250 fans, most of whom seem to be middle-aged to older women who are either hobbyist quiltmakers or self-styled lay quilt historians, though we do, of course, have many fans who do not meet this description. It is a geographically diverse group, with around 20 percent of our fans living outside the United States, in such far-flung places as Ethiopia and Pakistan, and with huge followings in Canada, Italy, the United Kingdom, and South Africa.
The Quilt Index social media strategy on Facebook includes engaging with the audience via trivia questions, which are designed to foster a personal connection to content, and by posting a “Quilt of the Day” daily. Themes for the Quilt of the Day (a particular pattern, period, region, etc.) are often suggested by the fans themselves. I facilitated this collective curatorial choice by posing several similar options the week before and inviting fans to use the comment feature to make their choice. For example, in July 2010, I asked the audience to choose from among five “quilt-specific” fabric colors (each of which are very much rooted in specific historical periods): cheddar orange, chocolate brown, indigo blue, Nile green, and Turkey red.
Negotiating this mass curatorial process and engaging in the co-creation of knowledge with the audience on Facebook has been fascinating. On several occasions, fans have demonstrated strong historical knowledge of a particular historical period or type of quilt or have even suggested ways in which a quilt’s metadata record might be more complete. This has then prompted me and other Quilt Index staff to do additional research and post the findings. Comments posted on the Quilt Index Facebook page often provide obscure information about pattern origins and early or out-of-print publications.
Citizen Scholars and Collective Knowledge
One out-of-print publication that we learned more about through our Facebook page is Roderick Kiracofe’s Homage to Amanda. In June 2011, I posted a Quilt of the Day and noted in my post that according to the quilt’s metadata record, the quilt had been published in a book called Homage to Amanda. I inquired if anyone had ever heard of it, and several people reported that they had, including the author of the book, who happened to be our fan. The author even offered to send me a free copy of the book, as it is out of print. Skeptics might argue that those with such historical knowledge to share are the exception, rather than the rule, and that the majority of those on the Quilt Index Facebook page are there just to look at quilts or because they simply wanted more pages to “like.” Indeed, many of our fans do come to the page to self-identify with a quilt-related community or to gain intellectual or emotional uplift from the quilts (both of which are worthy outcomes as well), rather than to engage in some form of knowledge production.
Referring to the dynamic of a teacher and student (or a Facebook manager and Facebook fan) is perhaps a more apt way of describing the work we are doing on Facebook with this population of “self-identifiers.” However, even this top-down model of scholarly communication is still a process of co-creation of knowledge to an extent. As Elissa Frankle noted,
In the age of the twenty-four hour news cycle and a well-researched, well-policed Wikipedia, museums like to believe that we still have the advantage of being Authorities. We know how to do Research. We know how to pose the Right Questions. We know, most importantly, how to Give Our Visitors The Answers. Citizen History is an experiment in finding out what happens if we trust our visitors enough to allow them to bring their diverse perspectives and boundless enthusiasm into the research work of the museum and share our authority. . . . Citizen History opens up a museum’s existing data to participants and, through scaffolded inquiry, invites participants to draw conclusions to answer big questions.
This sort of “scaffolded inquiry,” which allows for a sharing but not a relinquishing of authority, provides a space in which those who might be better defined as simply citizens, rather than citizen scholars, can still work alongside us.
The Quilt Index fan page does have several individuals who are clearly visiting the fan page for the purpose of participation in research. In fact, one of our fans in Pakistan (another indicator of the very international nature of this scholarly exchange) alerted me that a ralli quilt that I had posted during “International Week” had an incorrect provenance. According to its donor-submitted metadata, the quilt was made in India. However, the fan argued that it was actually made in Pakistan. I was later able to do some research to prove the fan’s assertion, resulting in the updating of the quilt’s record. (See the image in the web version of this essay at http://WritingHistory.trincoll.edu.)
Taken together, these short anecdotes on co-curating Quilts of the Day, crowdsourcing the ralli quilt record, and connecting with the author of Homage to Amanda (culled from numerous examples of such interactions on the Quilt Index Facebook page) may be understood in the context of what cybertheorist Pierre Lévy termed “collective intelligence.” In Cyberculture, Lévy describes the collective intelligence brought about by online communication.
My hypothesis is that cyberculture reinstates the copresence of messages and their context, which had been the current of oral societies, but on a different scale and on a different plane. The new universality no longer depends on self-sufficient texts, on the fixity and independence of signification. It is constructed and extended by interconnecting messages with one another, by their continuous ramification through virtual communities, which instills in them varied meanings that are continuously renewed.
One can understand the collective intelligence of lay scholars’ crowdsourcing of history in this way: no one historian knows everything, and everyone actively posting content has something slightly different to offer the community. All of the content produced and posted by lay quilt scholars amounts to the collective intelligence of the quilt world, a body of knowledge that no one individual can ever know in its entirety, for it is simply too vast. Collectively, these social citizen scholars have created a massive, fairly cohesive body of knowledge online. I see this collaborative, corporate way of producing and sharing knowledge as a new genre of historical writing and research, a genre that challenges but need not overthrow traditional academic assumptions about single authorship and the roles of lay scholars.
Social media shifts the role of authority from being vested solely in a historical cultural domain, such as the museum or the university history department, to being shared with a community- or user-generated body of information that is critiqued within the community. Academic historians are beginning to recognize that this outpouring of lay scholarship on Facebook and through other social media outlets is neither to be ignored nor to be feared. The ability of citizen scholars to engage in historical inquiry on Facebook pages such as the Quilt Index’s fan page is strengthening, rather than eroding, the connection between lay historians and museum professionals and other academics. In fact, I myself (an academic historian) have cited Facebook comments before. Facebook is challenging the traditional channels of scholarly communication, and crowdsourcing is changing the way in which I approach the writing of history.
Acknowledgments: I am grateful to my colleagues at the Quilt Index—Marsha MacDowell, Mary Worrall, Justine Richardson, and Amy Milne—for their help and guidance with this project. I also very much thank those who provided comments and questions during the open peer review, especially Timothy Burke, Bethany Nowviskie, and Barbara Rockenbach. A big thank-you goes to Beth Donaldson, herself a lay quilt historian, who recently took over for me as Quilt Index social media manager after I accepted my current faculty position.
1. In this essay, the terms lay scholar, lay historian, and citizen scholar are all used more or less interchangeably, to indicate someone who produces (historical) scholarship without having attained a postbaccalaureate academic degree, the MA or PhD in history or a related discipline. These terms are all used to contrast such scholars to the academic historian, who possesses such a credential and often works within a university or museum setting. When used on its own in this essay, the term scholar refers simply to a person who participates in historical research and writing.
2. Elissa Frankle, “More Crowdsourced Scholarship: Citizen History,” blog of the Center for the Future of Museums, July 28, 2011, http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.com/2011/07/more-crowdsourced-scholarship-citizen.html.
3. The Quilt Index (http://www.quiltindex.org) is a partnership project between Michigan State University’s MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters, and Social Sciences Online, the Michigan State University Museum, and the Alliance for American Quilts. It has been funded in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute for Museum and Library Services.
4. Quilt Index Twitter feed, http://www.twitter.com/quiltindex; blog, http://www.quiltindex.org/news; wiki page, http://www.quiltindex.org/~quilti/wiki/index.php/Main_Page; Facebook fan page, http://www.facebook.com/quiltindex.
8. In learning theory, the term scaffolded inquiry refers to a social constructivist idea in which learning is facilitated by a framework, or scaffold, constructed by the content expert. Scaffolded inquiry can also facilitate collaboration with peers.
The HeritageCrowd Project: A Case Study in Crowdsourcing Public History
Digital history is public history: when we put materials online, we enter into a conversation with individuals from all walks of life, with various voices and degrees of professionalism. In this essay, we discuss our experience in relinquishing control of the historical voice in order to crowdsource cultural heritage and history. What is the role of the historian when we crowdsource history? Whose history is it anyway—the historian’s or the crowd’s? Which crowd can lay claim to it?
Wikipedia, the exemplar par excellence of what crowdsourcing can accomplish, has perhaps the most succinct and elegant definition of the term: “a distributed problem-solving and production model.” This definition dovetails nicely with recent polemics about the nature of the digital humanities more generally, where digital work is not just about solving a problem but also about “building things,” as Steven Ramsay has argued. Notice that this definition says nothing about the nature of the crowd, its professionalism, or its training; there is an implicit suggestion that “anyone” can be part of the crowd. Notable projects that crowdsource historical problems range from Ancient Lives, a project to transcribe the Oxyrhynchus papyri; to Transcribe Bentham, a project to transcribe the papers of Jeremy Bentham; to the National Geographic Society’s Field Expedition: Mongolia, where contributors study satellite images of Mongolia to help direct the archaeological survey team on the ground.
Roy Rosenzweig has made the case for the need for historians to engage audiences outside the discipline, as well as for the power of historical narratives to bring about social justice. On a similar note, in 1932, Carl Becker, taking part in what was already an old discussion about the professionalization of history, wrote, “If the essence of history is the memory of things said and done, then it is obvious that every normal person, Mr. Everyman, knows some history.” In the age of Wikipedia as the go-to place for historical knowledge and of increased funding cuts to humanities research, the need to reach out to the public has never been greater. Edward L. Ayers argued that while a “democratization of history” has taken place since the emergence of new historical fields in academia, a “democratization of audience” has yet to come. Digital history has the potential to address these concerns by linking members of a community together to collaborate on historical projects.
Nevertheless, the Internet is not an inherently even playing field; to digitize is not to democratize. Technical literacy, closed algorithms for search engines, unequal access to quality hardware, and poor Internet connections mean that there is a disparity among users in their ability to manipulate the Internet for their own purposes. Colleen Morgan points out that “when even considered,” the audience for digital work “is almost always assumed to be male, white, western users of technology, a broadly defined ‘public’ for whom digitality is an obvious boon.” To put historical materials online is not a neutral process; to ask the crowd to solve a problem has the effect of creating self-selected groups, people who participate not just by interest but also by technological proficiency.
Our own project, which we christened HeritageCrowd, attempts to take these issues into account as we provide tools for the group expression of local history and heritage in certain rural communities in Eastern Canada, using low-tech “old digital media,” such as short message service (SMS) and voice mail, built into a web-based system. We wanted to bring the potential of digital technology to bear on a region with relatively low Internet access but also a relatively high interest in local history. (See the images in the web version of this essay at http://WritingHistory.trincoll.edu.)
Canadians may lead the world in Internet use, but this usage is not distributed equitably—for instance, across the rural and urban divide. Many rural museums and cultural heritage organizations do not have the technical expertise, human resources, or funding to effectively curate and interpret their materials, let alone to present them in a comprehensive manner over the Internet. These organizations constituted our ideal “crowds” for this project. We used two web-based platforms. The first platform is Ushahidi, a system developed in Kenya in the wake of the 2008 election violence, allowing for quick “reports” to be posted to a map via SMS messaging, voice mail (using voice-to-text software), Twitter, e-mail, and web forms. The second platform is Omeka, from the Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, which we use to archive and tell “stories” built around the contributions submitted on the Ushahidi platform.
Local history associations and other heritage groups form the backbone of a community’s collective memory, preserving and performing their sense of historicity. At its more elementary level, the goal of our project was simply to assist local heritage initiatives by creating a web-based system that could store and accept short, text contributions. The submissions that came in were then approved by members of the project team and enabled on the Ushahidi-powered site, where they were placed as reports on a map of the region.
In the initial proposal for this project, we were particularly interested in trying to address the rural-urban digital divide in Canada, by using the SMS system as the project’s backbone. We asked, can public history be crowdsourced? What does that even mean? How could the SMS system be used to collect local knowledge of heritage resources? What can be curated in this way? In what ways would such a system change the nature of local knowledge, once that knowledge becomes available to the wider world on the web?
We targeted a local area with which we were familiar, Pontiac County in Western Quebec, known locally as “the Pontiac.” Internet connectivity in the Pontiac has only recently transitioned from dial-up Internet connection. More important, over half the population does not have a high school diploma, an indicator of low Internet use. The Pontiac’s sister county in the neighboring province of Ontario, Renfrew, was also a target region, for similar reasons. Both of these counties together are known as the “Upper Ottawa Valley.” Could a low-tech approach to crowdsourcing history reach this particular crowd, and what kind of history would emerge?
Strong institutional narratives were already at play, given the provincial boundary between our two target counties. Education is a provincial responsibility in Canada, and the province of Quebec teaches a very different historical narrative than the province of Ontario. The histories of the regions and of minority groups do not have any real role in the “official” history taught at the high school level. Our project, then, has the political and social goal of validating those marginalized histories, to give a sense of legitimacy to the historical narratives of the local community. This made us question the role of the historian in this context; by crowdsourcing local history, we had transcended the traditional role of the historian as being an arbiter of historical truth. Historians who crowdsource the writing of historical narratives may be able to empower members of a given community who may not have the same institutionalized or professional authority conceded to “experts” in the discipline. This mission is distinctly different from that of most academic historians, whose work is centered around the construction of historical narratives based on the analysis of sources, and from that of museum or public historians, who attempt to provide an impartial and objective narrative of the past for public consumption.
To encourage submissions from visitors to the website, we created a number of reports to “seed” it, assuming that visitors would be less likely to submit reports if the site was empty or contained few reports. As of the end of July 2011, we have received 25 reports (5 contributions by voice mail, 7 by SMS, and 13 by e-mail, from unique contributors), and the site has 50 reports listed (this number includes the previous amount listed plus reports submitted via the website). At the time of writing, the site had been open to the public for a total of 54 days. As the Upper Ottawa Valley has a population of approximately 90,000 people, this suggests that about one in four thousand people living in the targeted area made a submission to the project.
It is difficult to judge whether or not this figure represents a low participation rate, since we have no comparable data. The promotion of the project took place by contacting local history associations and genealogical groups, churches, and museums via mail and e-mail. A brief labor disruption with Canada Post, the national postal operator, occurred in the early phases of the project, but we do not believe it to have been responsible for any significant delays in processing our mail. A large spike in submissions took place immediately after the publication of a newsprint article about the HeritageCrowd project in the urban newspaper the Ottawa Citizen (Renfrew and the Pontiac are in the city of Ottawa’s hinterland). As Amanda Sikarskie describes in this volume, her experience with the Quilt Index database, another important historical crowdsourcing project, shows that an effective and well-organized social media campaign has the ability to vastly increase the size of the “crowd” that participates in the project.
From a technological point of view, our mission was simply to give people the digital tools to more easily express and share their sense of heritage and local history. During the course of the project, however, it became evident that a second crowdsourcing method could be used for a similar goal. This approach, which could be called “retroactive crowdsourcing” (for lack of a better term), involves gathering representations of local history and heritage from disparate online sources that already exist and then collecting them in an online database. This is different from our original concept of crowdsourcing, where we actively solicited submissions to our project from a wide community.
We trawled through a number of different kinds of sites (such as Flickr.com), other amateur and local historical and genealogical websites (such as Bytown.net), blog posts, and online exhibits. This produced a sizable collection of heritage materials. We created an example report, “St. John’s Lutheran Church and Cemetery, Sebastopol Township.” A picture of the church taken by a Flickr user was uploaded (with permission) to the report, and a link was provided to a website that had photographed all of the headstones in the cemetery. The use of automated spiders and other software tools, such as DownThemAll or DevonAgent, could speed up this process and broaden its reach considerably. Indeed, this example shows one sense in which our project’s focus was misplaced. Crowdsourcing should not be a first step. The resources are already out there; why not trawl, crawl, spider, and collect what has already been uploaded to the Internet? Once the knowledge is collected, one could call on the crowd to fill in the gaps. This would perhaps be a better use of time, money, and resources.
In hindsight, one of the ways in which the project could have attracted more submissions lay in implementing what Jane McGonigal calls “classic game rewards”—in other words, building a series of gamelike mechanics into the project. These include giving the participants “a clear sense of purpose,” as well as giving them the impression that they are “making an obvious impact” and contributing to “continuous progress.” Gamification is a troubled term, in that while it implies using the classical tools of games to foster engagement, it can also be taken to suggest the trivialization of the task at hand or, worse, exploitation of the user/visitor. Be that as it may, McGonigal cites major crowdsourced collaborations, such as Wikipedia, as being successful because of subtle systems of rewards, satisfaction, and, to some extent, social interaction. HeritageCrowd could foster engagement through its “comments” feature on the individual reports in the Ushahidi platform, but here we have a clear case of where the technology, the medium, shapes the message: Ushahidi is for quickly reporting crisis incidents, not for fostering a dialogue about them. For our purpose, a great deal of modification needs to be done to the core platform, perhaps by merging the reporting system with the autocreation of wiki pages.
Although the accumulation of reports on the Ushahidi-powered website’s map could be seen as an indicator of progress over time, these reports first had to be approved by us before becoming visible (a decision taken to filter out potential spam or otherwise unsuitable material). The instant satisfaction of having made a contribution to the project was therefore lost. Similarly, one would not have been able to track one’s own individual progress (that is, with a personal account and information interface that lists the number of contributions). Either further development of the Ushahidi platform or the use of an additional platform to track this data for users could provide this benefit.
The concept behind the project (crowdsourcing local history and heritage using SMS networks and voice mail) proved to be an obstacle in some cases. When we visited community events or corresponded with individuals who expressed interest, some people were unsure what exactly we were asking them to do. This was most likely because the project was centered on a concept with which many people in the region were unfamiliar. We could easily explain it in person whenever we were asked about the project, but it is entirely plausible that some contributors made submissions to the project (by sending a text message or voice mail, for instance) without having fully understood how the submissions were compiled onto our website. (The article in the Ottawa Citizen was published digitally for a while with the headline “Text If You Are a Descendant of Philemon Wright.” We duly received a number of text messages with the exact message “I am a descendant of Philemon Wright.”) The layout of the main website also provides some confusion, as it is not immediately obvious how or what visitors actually do on the site. We believe that this confusion was partly responsible for the evolution of the project from a tool where collaboration and community support was envisioned, a process of sharing authority, to one where we the historians seem to be using the crowd more as a reservoir, contrary to our intentions.
Finally, we had a number of potential contributors who were worried that what they had to contribute was not “professional” enough and who were thus reluctant to actually contribute; in these cases, our role seemed to be to reassure them that what they knew, what they valued, did have “official” historical value. One community activist approached us with a body of materials that she had collected as part of a continuing negotiation with a local city council in Quebec over the development of a neighborhood. This neighborhood is predominantly Anglophone, while the city itself is largely Francophone. The history and memory of this one neighborhood was thus caught up in larger issues of identity, power, and institutionalized interpretations of history. The city council wishes to rezone the neighborhood to allow for high-rise condominiums. The activist approached us to see if we could “legitimize” what she had collected, in the hopes of forcing the city to adopt specific heritage recommendations into its planning process. The act of collecting community knowledge, since it was being done via our university-funded project, seems to put an imprimatur of “truth” and legitimacy on anything submitted and displayed. On all submissions, the Ushahidi platform uses the term verified in the sense of crisis management, to indicate that what is described in the submission actually happened. Our approach was initially one where we used the term simply as a spam filter. Clearly, this was far too simplistic and carries implications far beyond what we initially imagined.
At this early stage in our project, the single most important observation is the role our project seems to have in validating individuals’ and groups’ historical knowledge. Even if we have not yet collected masses of documentation, we provide a new avenue for nonprofessional knowledge to enter into the academic world of knowledge production. Consequently, by adapting a platform meant for one domain into another, there is procedural rhetoric that needs to be taken into account when designing how the project works. Our authority was not shared; rather, the platform and our use of it seem to have reinforced the primacy of the historian.
Were we to start this project over, we would spend more time modifying the basic platform to combat this result. The terminology and structure of the platform as it currently stands give more authority to the data displayed than might be warranted. We had imagined that if a contribution was made that might not be factually accurate or that carried political bias, a discussion would take place in the comments for that item and would result in the issue resolving itself (much like what happens on Wikipedia). This has not yet happened. Perhaps the fact that this project is university funded and carried out by university researchers and students also gives immediate “weight” and authority to anything displayed on the website, thus inhibiting discussion.
When the aim of a crowdsourced project is to transcribe documents, it is self-evident what needs to be done. When the aim is a bit more nebulous, like in the case of HeritageCrowd, we could suggest the following guidelines:
- Choose your base platform carefully, thinking through the technological and epistemological implications. (As it happens, Ushahidi as a platform does work in terms of widening access beyond the tech-savvy: we did get voice and SMS contributions and so met at least that aim of our project.)
- Collect what already exists.
- Seed your site with the collected existing material so that you can identify the gaps.
- Narrow your target when communicating with the public: get them to fill the holes.
- Make sure to design for engagement.
- Put initial resources into publicity. Building your crowd is key. Get out, walk the walk, and talk to people. Identify, contact, and cultivate key players.
- Have an “elevator pitch.” Make sure that the project can be described completely in 30 seconds or less. Build your outreach and social media strategy around getting that pitch in front of as many eyes in your target crowd as possible.
The funding for HeritageCrowd was limited to only a few summer months. However, by using open-source, freely available software, its continuing operating costs run to that of maintaining the web hosting. We will be taking the lessons we learned in the summer of 2011 and using them to improve our approach. With time, we hope to reach more of our target audience. HeritageCrowd will also become a platform for the training of students in digital history, outreach, and exhibition. As we collect more materials, we will be developing the Omeka-based “Stories” part of our site, allowing individuals, societies, students, and researchers to tell the stories that emerge from the crowdsourced contributions. It is still our hope that the role of the digital historian might be shifted away from that of the expert, dictating historical narratives from an academic podium, and toward an activist role for grassroots community empowerment. Digitally crowdsourced history has the potential to be like a cracked mirror: it could reflect what looks into it, and while it might not (cannot?) produce a polished, singular view, the aesthetic pleasure will lie in the abundance of perspectives that it provides.
Acknowledgments: The HeritageCrowd project was funded by a 2011 Junior Research Fellowship from the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at Carleton University, whose support is gratefully acknowledged. We would like to thank James Miller, Jim Opp, John Walsh, Lisa Mibach, and the contributors to HeritageCrowd for their interest, support, and feedback. Errors and omissions are our own.
1. “Crowdsourcing,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Crowdsourcing&oldid=470989039.
2. Stephen Ramsay, “Who’s In and Who’s Out” (text of paper delivered at MLA2011, Los Angeles, January 8, 2011, posted to personal blog), [formerly http://lenz.unl.edu/papers/2011/01/08/whos-in-and-whos-out.html].
3. Ancient Lives, University of Oxford, http://www.ancientlives.org; Transcribe Bentham, University College London, http://www.ucl.ac.uk/transcribe-bentham/; Field Expedition: Mongolia, National Geographic Society, http://exploration.nationalgeographic.com/mongolia.
4. Roy Rosenzweig, “Afterthoughts: Roy Rosenzweig,” The Presence of the Past, 1998, http://chnm.gmu.edu/survey/afterroy.html.
6. Edward L. Ayers, “The Pasts and Futures of Digital History,” http://www.vcdh.virginia.edu/PastsFutures.html.
8. Lorna Richardson, “The Internet Delusion and Public Archaeology Online” (paper presented at the annual conference of the Central Theoretical Archaeology Group, London, May 14, 2011), excerpted online at http://digipubarch.org/2011/12/14/inequalities-in-public-archaeology-online/.
9. Colleen Morgan, “Contextualized Digital Archaeology—Chapter 3,” draft of PhD diss., Anthropology Department, University of California, Berkeley, p. 3, http://middlesavagery.wordpress.com/2011/12/19/contextualized-digital-archaeology-dissertation-chapter/.
10. HeritageCrowd, Carleton University, http://heritagecrowd.org. In May 2012, the site was maliciously hacked and, as of this writing, is off-line, as described in Shawn Graham, “How I Lost the Crowd: A Tale of Sorrow and Hope,” Electric Archaeology, May 18, 2012, http://electricarchaeologist.wordpress.com/2012/05/18/how-i-lost-the-crowd-a-tale-of-sorrow-and-hope/.
11. ComScore, “The 2010 Canada Digital Year in Review 2010,” March 2011, http://www.comscore.com/content/download/7717/133765/version/5/file/comScore+2010+Canada+Digital+Year+in+Review.pdf.
12. Compare Ian Marlow and Jacquie McNish, “Canada’s Digital Divide,” Globe and Mail, April 2, 2010, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/canadas-digital-divide/article1521631/.
14. Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, Omeka, http://omeka.org.
17. MRC de Pontiac, “Plan stratégique—Vision Pontiac 2020,” April 2009, http://www.mrcpontiac.qc.ca/documents/vision2020/Diagnostic%20-%20MRC%20de%20Pontiac.pdf.
18. MRC Pontiac, “Demographic and Socio-economic Profile, Pontiac Municipal Regional County,” 2006, http://web.archive.org/web/20111011002302/http://mrcpontiac.qc.ca/en/regional/regional_demographic.htm.
19. Statistics Canada, “Internet Use by Individuals, by Selected Characteristics,” 2005–9, http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/comm35a-eng.htm.
20. The proportion of individuals in Renfrew County without a high school diploma is about 26 percent. Statistics Canada, “2006 Community Profiles—Renfrew County and District Health Unit,” http://www12.statcan.ca/census-recensement/2006/dp-pd/prof/92-591/index.cfm?Lang=E.
21. Problems with the provincial history curriculum, as it pertains to the Anglophone history of Quebec, have long been recognized. See, for instance, Sam Allison and Jon Bradley, “Quebec Exam Is Bad History, Written in Bad English,” Montreal Gazette, July 5, 2011, http://j.mp/gazette-bad-english.
22. See, for instance, the papers in the special edition edited by Steven High, Lisa Ndejuru, and Kristen O’Hare, “Sharing Authority: Community-University Collaboration in Oral History, Digital Storytelling, and Engaged Scholarship,” Journal of Canadian Studies/Revue d’études canadiennes 43, no. 1 (2009).
27. William J. Turkel, “Spider to Collect Sources,” March 23, 2011, http://williamjturkel.net/2011/03/22/spider-to-collect-sources/; DownThemAll, http://www.downthemall.net/; DevonAgent, http://www.devontechnologies.com/.
29. Ian Bogost, “Gamification Is Bullshit: My Position Statement at the Wharton Gamification Symposium,” August 8, 2011, http://www.bogost.com/blog/gamification_is_bullshit.shtml.
31. Philemon Wright was the first major colonist and landowner in the region, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?id_nbr=3738.
32. See Ian Bogost, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007), on how software processes force a particular rhetoric of expression in the final representation of digital data.