The concept of public history in the digital sphere as described in Cameron Blevins’ “Digital History’s Perpetual Future Tense” and Leslie Madsen-Brooks’ “‘I Nevertheless Am a Historian’” reminded me of the New York Public Library’s public projects. Anyone with internet access can help “interpret” historical materials in the library’s collections by pinpointing locations on maps, transcribing documents and polishing computer-generated results.
There’s the Building Inspector project – with the tagline “Kill time. Make History.” – that involves “training computers to recognize building shapes” on old maps, primarily from the 19th and early 20th centuries, and asking volunteers to verify the results. The intent is not only to document the buildings and neighborhoods of centuries past but also to observe how the city has changed over time and make this information “organized and searchable.” Other projects include:
- Emigrant City: Transcribing information found on handwritten mortgage and bond ledgers from Emigrant Savings Bank records.
- What’s on the Menu?: Transcribing old restaurant menus and tagging the geographic location of the restaurants.
This use of collaboration and making old images, maps and documents available for public input reflects the ideals of digital humanities and is a form of “expanding access to the past,” to borrow Blevins’ words in describing the emergence of public history.
He writes: “A commitment to public engagement and accessibility has democratized both the consumption and production of history.”
By getting the public involved, or at least those who can use the internet, the NYPL gives people “early” access – that is, access before the completion of the projects – to their historical collections to build the information that is and will be stored about that material. In turn, these efforts will allow visitors to not just search more easily for and within the texts and images but also analyze, say, the textual data.
(As a sidetone, this effort also demonstrates that when it comes to extracting text and shapes from historical documents and other material, human verification of computer-generated results is necessary – not to mention, human verification of the work of other humans as all the projects make sure to have multiple volunteers checking and double checking the transcriptions.)
At the same time, these tasks are able to be open to anyone who wants to volunteer their time perhaps because the work it is asking participants to do is clear-cut – verify or write out what it says in the documents. In this case “interpretation” is primarily inputting information. Interpretation in the sense of argumentation of the material on the part of the volunteers would be done on their own, separate from the project. This certainly avoids the potential pitfalls of “crowdsourcing history via the “‘wisdom of the crowds’” that Marshall Poe warns against, according to Madsen-Brooks.