Why Crowdsourcing? Why Scripto?

As we approach the alpha launch of Scripto with the Papers of the War Department, 1784-1800 project, it seems appropriate to step back and consider why we at CHNM would be interested in building a tool to facilitate the crowdsourcing of documentary transcription.

A survey of the current landscape in public history, archive, and museum projects suggests that a tide of interest in crowdsourcing is building in the community. Just recently, the participants in the Digital Humanities API Workshop at the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities produced an excellent summary of recent work and current needs. The list of projects launched recently is long and includes projects such as:

This ecosystem of relate projects all draw up on the interest and enthusiasm of members of the general public to advance the work of important intellectual ventures. In a sense, the participants in these projects work to support Clay Shirky’s thesis in Cognitive Surplus (2010) that new media is allowing individuals to redirect their free time away from passive consumption of media to active participation in social and cultural ventures that can be harness in positive ways. Shirky’s work is somewhat utopian, but we at CHNM share his enthusiasm for the possibilities that community-wide collaboration might have for our work in public history.

Our enthusiasm for community participation in public history comes from the mission of the Center, which includes using “digital media and computer technology to democratize history—to incorporate multiple voices, reach diverse audiences, and encourage popular participation in presenting and preserving the past.” This impulse to provide open access to historical materials and to build open source tools also includes an interest in welcoming the wider public to join us in our work. In 1998 CHNM founder Roy Rosenzweig entitled his closing thoughts of The Presence of the Past (co-authored with David Thelen) “Everyone a Historian,” in an effort to indicate the very complex interpretations individuals who are not professional historians make of their encounters with history. We wish to encourage this historical work by providing everyone with access to historical materials and opportunities to participate in the work of history.

In addition to these general goals for members of the interested public, we have several specific goals for Scripto and its role in crowdsourcing documentary transcription for documentary editors.

  1. For digital documentary projects, Scripto will allow users to provide text that is essential to improving the function of the archive’s search engine and the ability for users to locate the materials they need. As such we are not looking for perfect transcriptions, but rather the progressive improvement that users can provide over time. All of the text contributed by the crowd will provide more data to search, and will allow users to pursue topics and interests that might not be represented in the metadata created by project editors.
  2. For documentary projects with the fiscal resources for professional transcriptions, we hope that this initial and imperfect transcription data will provide project editors with a first pass from which they can build more robust transcriptions for scholarly editions. To some small degree, user contributed transcriptions will allow projects to reallocate resources toward the value-added materials they bring to scholarly editions in the form of annotations, glossaries, and other contextual elements.
  3. The landscape of documents that user choose to transcribe will provide documentary editors with vital insights about the topics and elements of their archives that are of interest to users. This information is central to informing future efforts at outreach and to prioritizing site enhancements, such as teaching materials and digital exhibits.
  4. Opening up an archive to crowdsourced transcription provides projects with an opportunity to think seriously about fostering and maintaining a vibrant community of users. Public history is meant to be public, and Scripto will help editors focus on seeking out interested users for their important holdings.

In the end, our work on Scripto and its implementation with the Papers of the War Department is an experiment in pursuing these goals. Eventually, editors from other digital documentary projects may wish to customized or extend Scripto’s functionality to serve the needs of their users and their collections, but these four essential goals will remain consistent across projects. As a free and open source tool, we have designed Scripto to be light-weight, flexible, and modular so that it represents a simple step forward for documentary editors.

[Cross-posted from the Scripto blog.]

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