The Changing Role of the Historian

The theme that came to my mind most often while going through this week’s readings on digitization and crowdsourcing is the changing role of the historian, and how digitization has accelerated that change. Because of digitization, historians now have to  be comfortable in fulfilling roles typically filled by curators, librarians, and archivists, an idea that was voiced last week by Andrew Prescott in his article “An Electric Current of the Imagination.” This idea definitely carried through to this week’s readings, and I felt that Stephen Brier and Josh Brown’s article on the 9/11 Digital Archive illustrated this point best. In their article, they described building the archive, the steps they took to make certain it would be a well-rounded collection, and how they ensured its preservation for future scholars. With the goal of creating an archive that highlighted the voices of those whose memories would otherwise have been lost in the media deluge in the days and weeks following the attacks, the American Social History Project and CHNM collaborated to create what is now the 9/11 Digital Archive. Brier and Brown note that after 9/11 historians had to work as archivist-historians in order to successfully collect, catalog, and make data accessible.

While working at CHNM over the past academic year, I was given the chance to work with the Archive. Along with Stephanie and Jordan, we added items to a collection, described each item, and after a successful review, the collection was made public. When I worked in Public Projects in the spring semester I reviewed and made collections public, and wrote blog posts highlighting the Boston Federal Aviation Administration Filings, Sonic Memorial Project, and Middle East and Middle Eastern America Center Interviews collections. While undertaking this work, I fulfilled many different roles: I acted as a librarian in accessioning items to various collections; I reviewed items already public and ensured the metadata attached to each specific item was correct and up-to-date, thus curating and looking after the existing data; and I analyzed the data in order to write blog posts that appeal to a wide audience, which is a responsibility many public historians today have.

Crowdsourcing has also experienced a huge boom thanks to digitization. Trevor Owens’s series of blog posts regarding crowdsourcing and cultural heritage institutions were particularly enlightening. In his blog posts, Owens breaks down the meaning of crowdsourcing and argues against the derogatory connotations of the word, argues that the process of crowdsourcing projects fulfills the mission of digital collections, and studies participants’ motivation in engaging with crowdsourcing projects. Thanks again to CHNM and to Public Projects, specifically, I worked on a large crowdsourcing project: The Papers of the War Department (PWD). I created user accounts; protected and exported documents that had been transcribed; and raised awareness of the project by tweeting about nominated documents and writing monthly blog posts, either in the form of a community transcription update or a “transcribe this” post. While working on the PWD, I experienced what Owens wrote about in his blog posts. Crowdsourcing should not be looked at in a negative light; often projects that employ it allow transcribers (I’ll refer to any volunteers working on a crowdsourcing project as transcribers simply to maintain uniformity and continuity – I understand not all crowdsourcing work is transcription-based) to work with the document in ways that would not have been possible otherwise. The interaction between the transcriber and the document is a special and unique one, as the experience is not one that could have been produced in any other environment.

In conclusion, digitization has changed the role of the historian in dramatic and necessary ways. I remember in high school when my guidance counselors and teachers were saying how important it is for students to be well-rounded in order to be attractive to college admission boards. I think that historians today have to be well-rounded: they have to know more than just the typical historian-craft as a result of digitization. Also, historians must be open to crowdsourcing and the opportunities it presents not just to the crowdsourced project but to the users who work on it.

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