Public History and the NYPL’s Public Projects

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(As a sidetone, this effort also demonstrates that when it comes to extracting text and shapes from historical documents and other material, human verification of computer-generated results is necessary – not to mention, human verification of the work of other humans as all the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.

3 thoughts on “Public History and the NYPL’s Public Projects

  1. Nancy Foasberg

    I’m still chewing over your observation that NYPL makes history participatory by giving the public specific, discrete tasks to work on. I think that’s true; your examples definitely show this, but the neatness with which it solves the problem troubles me a little.
    These projects let the public do the grunt work, in hopes of speeding up the process, and succeed in getting a lot of materials online (definitely a good thing), but leaves the real task of argumentation up to the professionals. But — how are those who work on the documents changed through this work? What does it do for historical literacy and public engagement with history? It definitely does something; members of the public have an opportunity to look closely at these documents and may feel some sense of ownership over the final result – but it’s framed as “killing time,”
    Clearly the expertise of historians is very important for drawing conclusions from the historical record, but after all, the public is still going to make claims about history (and probably should). I really loved Madsen-Brooks’s point about fostering “more thoughtful participation in historiography” and wonder what that might look like.

    1. Jennifer Cheng Post author

      I got the impression that unlike many of the digital history archives, these projects put the emphasis on “just” providing the historical material. People can then use it to form their own arguments in their own spaces, whether that be on blogs, in classrooms, etc. Histories of the National Mall may not have the academic argumentation that Blevins seeks but it still provides some context and “interpretation” in the form of descriptions, timelines and an “Explorations” page. We don’t know what the NYPL’s public projects will look like in the end but based on their About pages, they seem to focus on the documents and visuals more than anything else and let people take it from there. Perhaps if these kinds of collaborative projects were done in person, there would be opportunities to have historians on hand to educate participants on historical literacy and foster discussion. The Emigrant City project has a forum so there’s some attempt at encouraging discussions but the link is currently broken.

      For good or for bad this initiative really is getting the public to, as you say, do the grunt work.

      At the same time, to echo what Dax said, if you have some free time it’s more productive than doing certain other activities.

  2. Dax Oliver

    I tried out the Building Inspector program that Jennifer listed above and I think one benefit is teaching people about the use of artificial intelligence in humanities research. It was interesting to see the types of errors that the computer made in determining what a building was. Beyond that, we all find ourselves with time to kill now and then. I think I’d rather have people enjoying something like this than playing yet another round of solitaire on their computer.

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