Crowdsourcing History

Everyone’s a Historian Now

Many thanks to Stephen Mihm of the University of Georgia (author of the outstanding A Nation of Counterfeiters: Capitalists, Con Men, and the Making of the United States) for his cover story in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe on crowdsourcing and history. I’m grateful for his coverage of the Center for History and New Media‘s many collecting projects, and for featuring my remarks so prominently.

6 replies on “Everyone’s a Historian Now”

The Boston Globe doesn’t seem to have a blog/discussion section, so here is my comment on Mihm’s article:

Mihm’s article stereotypes the past, to the effect that the present appears in an ever more glowing light. The statements that the historical “craft …has changed little for decades, if not centuries,” and that the “discipline (…) has long been defined and limited by the labors of a single historian toiling in the dusty archives,” are simply inaccurate. Historical practice has changed radically in the past 150 years and has always included a broad variety of approaches, sources, methodologies, and theories. Group-based (but not necessarily collaborative) projects have long been an integral part of historical practice. Businessman, collector, and historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, for example, in his massive effort to document the history of the American West, hired scores of (mostly male) researchers (Bancroft was a terrible misogynist) to gather oral and written materials for his history of the American West in the 1870s and 1880s. Genealogists have, for more than a century, worked in contexts of large collaborative networks that have often included hundreds of people. Also, there have been collaborative history projects that have been engaged in the large-scale gathering and analyzing of materials and data, such as a computer-based historical and anthropological project analyzing proto-industrialization, based at the University of Goettingen in the late 1970s and 1980s, among many other group-based and collaborative projects ever since. By presenting the history of historical practice as static, and by ignoring such past experiences, today’s historians who boost digital technology to expand and enrich historical knowledge deprive themselves of much valuable knowledge and interesting histories that have come out of an ever changing historical practice.

On Bancroft, see David Van Tassel’s: Recording the Past: An Interpretation of the Development of Historical Studies in America, 1607-1884 (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1960; on the Goettingen project, see George Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, 1997); see also on another group-based project, the Historical Records Survey, Ian Tyrrell, Historians in Public (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2005).

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