Crowdsourcing History: Smithsonian Transcription Center

Crowdsourcing History: Smithsonian Transcription Center

Increasingly, historical documents and resources are being digitized, making massive amounts of data available online. In turn, this historical data has become an important source for public historians and researchers looking to uncover historical narratives and voices. Crowdsourcing labour is an important means for public historians and institutions to effectively produce access to historical data online. Crowdsourcing, which can be defined as  an “online, distributed problem-solving and production model,” is a way for institutions and public historians to harness the collective knowledge of online communities to serve specific project goals. Among many successful crowdsourcing projects, Wikipedia demonstrates what collaborative knowledge can accomplish. As Jason A. Heppler and Gabriel K. Wolfenstein explained, Wikipedia is a platform where “the project leaders are providing the space, but it is the community which defines both scope and content.”

There are different crowdsourcing strategies public historians and institutions have utilized to produce projects for cultural heritage and public history. As the inital results for The HeritageCrowd Project: A Case Study in Crowdsourcing Public History demonstrated, crowdsourcing public knowledge for cultural heritage and local history can be achieved through soliciting participants, and also through a method the project referred to as “retroactive crowdsourcing.” This term refers to the process of collecting knowledge and representations of local history and heritage that already exist online, and gathering them into an online database. Crowdsourcing transcriptions is another method institutions and public historians have used to achieve project goals. Transcriptions of documents are important for ensuring the readablility and accessibility of historical information. At the same time, transcriptions assist in the preservation and digitalization of handwritten materials.

“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.”

—Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian” [1] 

I have been interested in participating in a crowdsourced project since I had learned about crowdsourcing in my Crafting Digital History course. While I was volunteering at the Bytown Museum, a staff member recommended I contribute transcriptions for the Smithsonian Museum through their Transcription Center. As the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) was set to open its doors around that time, I was excited to get a closer look at some of the documents in their collections which were in need of transcribing. Scrolling through the list of projects, I decided to contribute to the Freedmen’s Bureau Papers Project as I was familiar with the Bureau and I knew I would find the collection interesting. The Freedmen’s Bureau, or the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands, was created by Congress during the Reconstruction Era to assist formerly enslaved individuals transition to citizenship. Amongst other things, the Freedmen’s Bureau provided food, housing, education, and medical care. They kept record of labor contracts, issued food rations, marriage and hospital registers, and census lists. The handwritten documents within the Freedmen’s Bureau Papers Project provide a unique view into the social conditions of the South at the end of the Civil War. In particular, this project brings the experiences and challenges of newly freed individuals to light.

Using these records, the NMAAHC has collaborated with FamilySearch International to create DiscoverFreedmen, which is a searchable database with genealogical information such as name, places, and dates. As African American history can be difficult to trace through official records, this information is particularly useful for family historians, genealogists, students and scholars. To supplement the index work, the Freedmen’s Bureau Papers Project was created to transcribe every word in the collection, to allow the records to be word searchable online. Once completed, this will allow researchers and public historians to search the records, read full documents, or see connections between documents.

As the experiences of African Americans are often incomplete or omitted from written records, this collection holds particular importance to me as it illuminates an important period in African American history. I am happy that I was able contribute to this project, and help make this collection accessible online. I hope to contribute more transcriptions to the Smithsonian Transcription Center in the future. The site is easy to use and understand, as the website provides you with plenty of information about the individual projects and tips on how to write your transcriptions. I would recommend this site to anyone who is interested in making historical information more accessible. Some of the transcriptions and reviews I submitted for the Freedmen’s Bureau Papers Project can be found below.

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