Friday, June 15, 2012

Massive Online Collaboration

I've been watching TED talks over lunch at work lately (thank you, wireless!) and this one in particular caught my eye, because of the way it combines necessary, repetitive tasks and crowdsourcing cultural benefits.

There are some good museum projects out there that use crowdsourcing in order to enhance their records - this post from the Center for the Future of Museums blog talks about a great project at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum -  but nothing on this scale. Another of my favorites is Find a Grave, which combines the efforts of really hardcore researchers - who will spend entire days recording cemeteries - with casual genealogists, who may know specific information about a few people.  I know I have used it to my benefit in researching my own ancestors, and have felt the pull to contribute

In my current work at an archive, I can't help but wonder if there isn't some kind of automated system that could help us transcribe a recently digitized correspondence collection. Transcription of handwritten documents is a difficult skill, and requires more effort than the Captcha system that Van Ohn describes, but I believe that some of his principles can be carried over. (Many institutions have already done this, in fact - here's a good review of a panel at AHA this year that addressed the question.)

In particular, I liked the way he addressed safeguards. The great fear in relying on the unnamed public in order to produce historical information is that they won't do it "right" - fill in the definition of right according to your institution. The Captcha project requires ten correct identifications of a word, plus a confirmed correct transcription of a known Captcha.

I believe the greatest hurdle to accomplishing a project with this level of reliance on public aid is that fear. Will they do it right? What if they're better at it than we are? What will they need us for? In particularly sensitive collections, housed in institutions that are affiliated with a movement or with a person - what if they don't interpret it right? What if they use these words for ill?

My ideal system would have a document transcribed multiple times, by multiple people, and then a back-end system that compares those transcriptions and flags problems for a more experienced reviewer. More experienced reviewers could be users that have demonstrated a high level of accuracy through previous interactions with the system, or paid staff of the institution.

My own personal preferences in this line are to throw everything wide open, invite everyone to a big huge party, get them excited, and thank them for their help, showing them the incredible contribution they're making to history. I love amateur historians. I love reenactors. There are so many people who are so enthusiastic about history but who are blown off because they don't do it "right." At the same time, I am always mindful that my attitude is not shared, and that I can alienate colleagues whose help I need when I push hard to open things up so dramatically.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Historian Sam Willis at the Massachusetts Historical Society

On May 23, I attended a brown bag lunch at the Massachusetts Historical Society to hear naval historian Sam Willis talk about his work on the maritime history of the American Revolution. It's a subject I'm almost entirely unfamiliar with - my specialty has always been in land action - and I was pleased to be able to walk over from work and listen in.

Willis was an engaging speaker with a good breadth and depth of knowledge, and was very candid about where he was in his research. He has some interesting perspectives on the traditional view of the naval war - namely, that the things we think were important weren't all that, and that the British more or less bungled it from lack of preparation.

I took notes on a few points that I found interesting and perhaps applicable to my own thinking about American military history. In no particular order:

- The existing maritime infrastructure of the American colonies (via trade and fishing) gave them a leg up when it came to mobilizing naval power during the Revolution, particularly in terms of authorizing privateers. (I have been doing some thinking recently about the influence of pre-existing knowledge on military service; in particular, recruits to the cavalry who have some knowledge of horses versus those coming from inner cities.)

- The importance of seapower is sometimes in its very existence; for example, when the (however small) American navy was authorized during the Revolution, it forced Great Britain to spend valuable time building up its forces instead of simply attacking.

- There were no real standout men or battles, despite the traditional view on the period. Willis contends that the overall impression is one of very ordinary men muddling through.

- America's decision to build a naval fleet wasn't as much a military decision as it was a diplomatic one. Having a navy was a sign of an independent nation and signaled to France that America might be a feasible ally. The actual ships themselves - as in, having them finished and out on the seas - were less important than proving you had the capability to build them. It takes a certain level of governmental organization to pull off the planning and implementation of a shipbuilding program, as well as a certain level of trade and supply.

I've seen evidence of the last point in the organization of the dragoons in the 1830s. One of the arguments in congress pursued most ardently by Secretary of War Lewis Cass and Representative (later Vice President) Richard M. Johnson was that adding a mounted force to the American army would put it on a par with other world powers. If adding a navy was a sign of an independent state, then some clearly thought that adding a mounted force was the next step - a sign of a burgeoning imperial power instead of a castoff colony.