Crowdsourced History: Cathedral or Bazaar?

This week’s readings discussed crowdsourcing and how it affects historical projects. Every large scale digital history project which invites input from the public must make a conscious decision- are the project’s leaders going to vet all contributions or will they allow the chaos of the crowds to lead the way. To take the analogy of Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral or the Bazaar, will the architects watch closely as the public carefully place the bricks to create an immaculate cathedral (Transcribing Bentham) or will the crowd create a chaotic but successful infrastructure based on a few guidelines (Wikipedia).  Eric Raymond, a Free Open Source Software (FOSS) supporter unsurprisingly determines that the bazaar-style method was actually a great success. While Wikipedia’s success has shown that chaos can work at certain scales and for certain aims, it’s not appropriate for all projects.

Roy Rosenzweig’s article offered one of the most direct comparisons of projects with vastly different levels of authority. Directly comparing Wikipedia’s biographies with the top-down directed American National Biography Online, it’s clear that the professionally written articles are of a higher quality than Wikipedia’s. Yet at a cost of millions to create and very high access fees, ANBO is not nearly as efficient in creating a reference as Jimmy Wales’  bizarre bazaar of knowledge.

For certain historical projects, a distributed model is appropriate. Rosenzweig suggests that the survey textbook would be an ideal candidate for an open source, distributed creation. And History Matters continues to be a successful and freely available source (though I don’t know how close its production was to Roy’s suggested model of open contribution with a central vetting committee).

Trevor Owens also touches on authority in crowdsourced projects, and assuages the concerns of cultural resource professionals, that these projects have a long history in non-digital forms, and that the “crowds” are actually the engaged and knowledgeable amateurs who professionals are trying to reach. This makes the relinquishing of authority more acceptable in many contexts like NARA’s Citizen Archivist, NYPL menus, and even Transcribing Bentham.

Yet in the Bentham transcription project, the required level of transcription was extremely high. The transcriptions would become published in online or even physical formats, so the project directors required near perfection of the texts. Because of this high bar, a close review of each transcription was needed and this ultimately caused the project to be fairly inefficient in how its paid employees time was spent. For many, the project failed because fewer documents were produced by staff moderating the volunteers than if they had simply transcribed documents with their time. Had a Wikipedia style of authority directed transcription review, then perhaps it would have produced more works. So giving up some authority (volunteer editors) might have increased quantity with a possible reduction in quality. Yet would the Bentham Papers achieve the high quality expected of this type of project? Likely yes, but even the perception of diminished quality might make it less well regarded among the academics who would use it. Here again, relinquishing of authority would cause concern further down the professional historical pipeline.

In last week’s readings and this weeks, the relinquishing of authority has become a major litmus test for public history professionals. For Carl Smith, “serious history” online came from historians and museum professionals only. Yet “Cleveland Historical” succeeded because they reached out to the community for oral history stories- giving up some of the authority inherent in top-directed projects (though individual stories still received proper vetting). In collecting material for the Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, freedom from “the Authorities” was required to earn trust and this was only achieved by giving participants complete control over their stories. In this case, the HDMB projected its authority by creating a safe place for the public to entrust their stories. History on the web need not create the Cathedral, but it needs more structure than the bazaar. A project’s magic is in the proper balance.

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