Audience and Public History

In her book Museums, Monuments and National Parks: Towards a New Genealogy of Public History (2023). Denise Meringolo documents the evolution of public history during the 1920s and 1930s in the form of the National Park Service history program. This story  illustrates the divisions between academic a public historians and the long struggle of the latter to legitimize their work. According to Meringolo:

Public historians are not to blame for persistent disciplinary divisions. They may, however, be able to build important bridges in the larger historical landscape. In the same way that nineteenth-century scientists worked to temper the anxiety generated by social change, so too can twenty-first century public historians ease fears regarding the future of the nation.1

One could even argue that, given the increasingly fragmented and complex information landscape, the work of twenty-first century public historians is central to the evolution and survival of the historical discipline at large. Now, more than ever, it is important for historians to work towards educating the public not solely by disseminating the knowledge and interpretations they produce, but by providing the resources, spaces, and opportunities for the public to become better historical thinkers. 

The work of Sam Wineburg on history education2 has demonstrated that the most valuable contribution that historians make through their work is to promote historical thinking. However, academic publications, the main products of historical scholarship are great examples of historical thinking, but are not, by themselves, the best tools to teach others how to think historically. Moreover, communities and members of the public have little opportunities to participate in historical research and hone their historical thinking skills. It is here that the work of public historians becomes most valuable, by expanding access and opportunities for communities and individuals to contribute, evaluate and interpret sources, develop meaningful narratives, and debate their ideas with other community members and professional historians.

Thus, public historians are not just translators who seek to communicate the work of academic historians to the public. Instead, they seek to work WITH the public facilitating greater access to communities and individuals seeking to take part in the production and interpretation of history. The work of the public historians is guided by the dual goals of “shared inquiry” and “shared authority.” 3

But it is precisely in pursuit of these goals that public historians often find themselves alienated from their academic peers. Developing mechanisms for shared inquiry and shared authority highlights some of the questions that public historians of the 1920s and 1930s faced in relationship to their academic historians. Questions such as how should we balance the needs and wants of communities with the obligations of historians to be objective and rigorous? Who determines what are relevant questions and/or acceptable answers? Where do we draw the line between advocacy and scholarship? How should the interests of non-professional stake holders, be it the government or members of the public, influence the “scientific” or “objective” study of the historical past?

Creators of public history projects such as those described in “Creating the Dialogic Museum” by John Kuo Wei Tchen; or in “Sharing Public History’s Authority within Communities.” by Serge Noire4 show that there is no single or simple answer to these questions. But they also illustrate that how the tensions embedded in the relationship between public historians and their audiences are fertile grounds for the cultivation of historical thinking. The creators of the China Town History Museum and the September 11 Digital Archive saw their projects not as works of finished scholarship but as spaces where historians the the public could meet to define the questions, sources and parameters for scholarship. Some conversations proved more successful than others, but what mattered most was not to agree on a single meaning for the historical past, but to develop the space and the language by which people could, on the one hand, build a meaning about the past for themselves, but also learn to respect the meanings built by others.

By engaging with audiences, public historians create the spaces where historical thinking can happen even if it does not always succeed. What is most important, however, is to be presented with the opportunity to participate, to converse, and to ask oneself what this past means to me and what it mean to others who are not like me. If Historical thinking and History are the means by which we learn to walk in the shoes of peoples different to us, it is through the work of public historians that we open that opportunity to the public.

  1. Meringolo, Denise. Museums, Monuments and National Parks: Towards a New Genealogy of Public History (2023) ↩︎
  2. Wineburg, Sam. “Thinking like a Historian: Historical Thinking: Memorizing Facts and Stuff? in Teaching with Primary Sources Quaterly (3), (1), (2010). ↩︎
  3. Corbett, K.T. and Miller, H., “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry” in The Public Historian, (8), (1), (2006): 15-38. ↩︎
  4. Tchen, John Kuo Wei, “Creating the Dialogic Museum. The Chinatown History Museum Experiment” in Museums and Communities: The Politics of Culture (Washington, D.C. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992): 285-326. and Noiret, Serge. “Sharing Authority in Online Collaborative Public History Practices” in Handbook of Digital Public History, edited by Serge Noiret, Mark Tebeau and Gerben Zaagsma, (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2022): 49-60.  ↩︎

User Research Considerations

As a historian who teaches and writes I always wanted to be mindful of my audience, however, that was only the case because I was deliberately thinking about a relatively narrow audience: scholars and aspiring scholars also interested in my work. However, the work of public history precisely requires that we expand that audience and thus think of the needs, interests, and even input of people who we would normally not include as part of our audience. 

My project is a site where students, teachers and scholars can gain access to primary sources and other resources to study the constitutional history of the Gold Coast. The first challenge for me was to separate these groups to understand their different needs. As a teacher and scholar, I understand what I would want and need in a site of this nature, but I did not necessarily understand what were the needs of my students or other teachers . So the first task was to check my assumptions.

I was not able to interview a high school teacher, but I did speak with two students, one who is currently in high school and taking an AP history course. The second is a sophomore in college taking a History major. The most important finding from these interviews is that students have a very limited familiarity with primary sources and even less of an understanding of what is the purpose of studying them. Their exposure to primary sources mostly comes from excerpts that appear in textbooks and other teaching materials such as published collections of documents. These give students the impression of a “finished” and established historical narrative that they need to confirm rather than question. This encourages memorization of historical facts and narratives and not critical engagement with questions and sources. In other words, it does not teach or encourage historical thinking.  

A key problem for students is to be able to discern between different kinds of sources so they can be properly contextualized. For example, something that I see with my students that was confirmed by the students I interviewed, is that they have difficulty understanding that a document included in a published collection is still a primary source, even if the publication itself is considered a secondary source. The distinction between primary and secondary sources has always been more complex in practice than in theory, but understanding it, and being able to discern between different types of sources is the bedrock of historical thinking and the first step towards being able to contextualize, read and interpret any given source.

This finding could have convinced me to organize materials in my site in a way that imitated an archival collection so as to sharpen student’ searching skills. However, I now think this should be one option of different options. Given students’ propensity to think of history as a finished narrative I now think it is more important to adopt a problem-solving or mystery-solving methodology that introduces historiography as an active dialogue in which students can participate. The reason for this conclusion is that it is clear from my interviews that students, for the most part, do not see a distinction between learning history (as learning things that happened in the past), and historical thinking (learning how to produce, understand and draw meanings from what we know about the past). Even though current curricula includes document-based- questions (DBQ), these require a very limited level of contextualization and students are never asked to evaluate or criticize the source itself. Moreover, the questions that students are given are also presented out of their historiographical context. This reinforces that idea that “the right history” has already been written and that students’ readings of the sources have little to contribute. 

For these reasons, I think it would be useful to produce a site that is organized around a series of questions or “mysteries” that have been or continue to be, debated among historians. This, approach, however, does present a significant challenge in that students and teachers do have limited time to get through the wealth of material which is included in the AP curriculum. After all, this is why they resort to what is included in textbooks and short DBQs. It would be unrealistic to imagine that teachers and students could read two to three articles of secondary sources as an introduction to the questions before they could start digging into the documents for some answers. I think a viable solution would be to offer a series of “dialogues” that can synthesize the most relevant questions. Ideally, I think it would be interesting so create some animated videos or re-enactments that can present these discussions, but I am sure this would be time-consuming and expensive. It may be more viable to create a series of short audio-clips to present the questions. Students could listen to these as they read the written synthesis. The site could also include links to the bibliography that is being synthesized so that students know where these questions have appeared and how they have evolved over time. 

The second question for me, as a designer is to figure out what is the best way to present the primary sources. Here, I think students should be given options. There should be access to the full collection, this should be searchable using the main concepts introduced in the historiographical syntheses. But I also think it is valuable to have smaller collections of documents related to a specific question or mystery. The main reasons for this, are again the time restrictions for students and instructors. However, by presenting a smaller number of documents, I will be able to focus more on creating the resources, assignments, and exercises that can guide students through the process of contextualization and interpretation. 

Overall, the user-research forced me to reconsider the scope and design of my project. I started thinking of this site as a means for students to gain “access” to primary sources. However, having spoken to some students, I realized that access alone is not sufficient to make the site relevant and useful. I needed to expand my understanding of what makes a collection of sources accessible to different populations. In the case of many undergraduates and high school students, accessibility should include an introduction to historiographical thinking and resources and guidelines for contextualization and interpretation; all in digestible units that will enable them to join in the elucidation of “historical mysteries.”

The Crane House and Historic YWCA at the Montclair History Center.

On-site Exhibits

The Crane House and Historic YWCA is owned and cared by the Montclair History Center (MHC), formerly known as the Montclair Historical Society. It is located in 110 Orange Rd, Montclair, Essex County New Jersey, some 10 miles west from Newark NJ and 20 miles west of New York City. The Montclair Historical Society was founded in 1965 with the purpose of saving and caring for the Crane House, a federal revival style landmark home originally built in 1796 in 159 Glenridge Ave and moved to its current location in 1965. The MHC cares for two more historical houses, the Nathaniel Crane House and the Clark House. This review will focus on the exhibits in the Crane House and Historic YMCA.

The Crane House and Historic YWCA serves as the backdrop to tell the histories of the Crane family and the YWCA of Montclair. The house was first built by Israel Crane in 1796. He was a successful entrepreneur, owned a general store, several textile mills, and a rock quarry in Newark. He also built a turnpike that facilitated his trading activities between port cities like Newark and the interior. The house remained in the family until the early 1900s.The history presented in the Crane house focuses on the social and economic changes experienced in the Montclair area. The fortune that allowed this house to be built was generated by a merchant family who successfully pioneered and expanded trade from the eastern ports of Newark and New York to the western and central parts of New Jersey. In this regard, the house largely tells a history of opportunity and progress available to a wealthy merchant family during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Parts of the exhibit also mention the presence of domestic servants and slaves that lived in the house, although information about them is neither abundant nor prominently displayed. 

Details about the layout and architecture of the house are displayed throughout the house to help visitors contextualize the histories told in the two exhibits. The house is a three-story home with four bedrooms in the second floor, two sitting rooms, one dining room and kitchen in the first floor, and a basement. The basement is mainly used for lectures. Rooms in the second floor have not yet been updated to reflect the interpretative vision of the house so I will not include them in this review. Visitors enter the house through a back door that goes into a foyer from where one can see the front door, a staircase going to the second floor, and access to four rooms in the main floor. In the foyer, visitors will find pictures depicting members of the Crane family, and documents illustrating different moments in the family’s history. Most of these documents are under a glass cabinet, so visitors cannot touch them, but they are still clearly legible.

In addition to the foyer, two rooms in the main floor are dedicated to the Crane family. A sitting room and the dining room. Both are furnished with donated eighteenth and nineteenth century furniture, pictures and paintings of the family, and even a family tree commissioned by James, a son of Israel. Visitors can walk around the rooms and find copies of  original newspapers and documents related to the family and the Montclair area. For instance, one can see the document that released James Crane from military service after the civil war. Members of the Crane family lived in the house until the early 1900s.

The house was rented for some time until 1920 when it was bought by the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) of Montclair North-Essex to be used as their headquarters. For most of the early twentieth century, the YWCA was a segregated institution. The YWCA in Montclair was peculiar in that it was not affiliated with a white YWCA. During this period, the house was used as dormitories, social center and offices. African American women who arrived at Montclair seeking housing, employment, or entertainment could find respectable and safe accommodations and leisure in the YWCA. In 1965 the YWCA needed more space and considered demolishing the existing house and building a new structure in the land they owned. A group of concerned citizens argued for preserving the original house and suggested it be moved to a different location. Land was donated and the house was moved to its present location.

The remaining two rooms in the main floor are used to tell the history of the YWCA in Montclair. In the kitchen, visitors can walk around a small table that holds more copies of documents and newspapers. Here, visitors will find census data detailing the demographic history of African-Americans in Montclair and Essex county, newspaper clippings of classified adds seeking domestic workers, and pamphlets promoting social events geared to African-American women. From here, one can walk to a second sitting room, more modern in its furnishings and, the only one where one is allowed to sit on the furniture. In one of the walls, there is life-size photograph that was taken in this very room, depicting some of the women who lived in this house. One can also find an iPad where visitors can listen to interviews conducted with women who lived in the house and watch a short documentary produced by the MHC narrating the stories of these women and the YWCA in Montclair.  There is a clear interpretative shift in these two rooms where the exhibits seek to use the experiences of the YWCA, and the women who lived in it, to introduce visitors to the larger history of race relations, African-Americans, and women in Montclair and Essex County. 

The exhibits at the Montclair History Center are geared to students and the general public. When I visited, I was accompanying a group of university students during a weekday. The director of the Center explained that the Center is open for guided and free visits on Sundays and for school visits during the week. They get a reasonable number of visitors, but they are rarely very busy. They also get a regular influx of visitors to their archives and library. 

For most of its history, Crane house was used to tell the history of the Crane family and Montclair. Over the past 15 years, there has been a deliberate attempt to also add the history of the YWCA to the permanent exhibits of the Center. There has also been a greater attempt to engage the visiting public with the sources that can help us document the history for the house and the larger community, hence the use of documents and newspaper clippings present in the exhibits. This is meant to balance the immersive experience of simply walking through the rooms of the house. There are few signs for directions and information. I think this helps maintain the immersive experience, but at times, one could use additional information, particularly geographical information. Even though most visitors are local, the exhibits assume a high degree of knowledge about the Montclair and north-Essex area that some visitors may not have. The life-size photograph in the YWCA room made very good use of an image that could be clearly tied to a specific place in the house. A regular size picture hanging on a wall, could have conveyed the history of the space, but the enlargement and placing of the photograph does convey the sense of one entering the room where these women met. The power of this effect could be enhanced if the voices were projected through the room rather than played on an iPad, But that would of course require more technical arrangements that may not be justified or possible given the resources of the center. 

In general, the space is adequate for no more than 15 visitors at the time. Having visited with a group of 25 students, we had to be divided in two groups and even that proved less than ideal. This is, however, a function of using an old house to the tell history. Given the limitations of space, the exhibits are well displayed and, if visitor numbers are kept under control, they should be able to navigate the space with ease.

I was able to talk to the director of the Center, and she expressed her plans to use the rooms in the second floor to expand the exhibits. The steps the Center has taken to use the documents in their archives to further engage the public in their exhibits seems a valuable tool. I would further advise creating some materials that can be unobtrusively displayed to offer more context and information on the house and objects displayed in the exhibits. Also, given the mission of the center to document the history of Montclair and Essex county, it would be useful to add more geographical tools and information about the surrounding areas.

Online Presence

The Montclair History Center has a limited online presence in the form of a website that explains the goals, history and services of the Center. The website includes information about the exhibits, but no actual exhibits. Instead, one can find brief historical summaries of the three historical houses cared for by the Center accompanied by some photographs taken from their archives.

The audience for the website are potential visitors, both private and institutional. The website is well organized. It includes some items that relate to the history of Montclair more generally. For instance one can download a booklet describing several self-guided walking and bike tours around the town of Montclair. It also includes announcements for future events and exhibits, and a description of research services. It also includes a link to the documentary that the MCH produced about the women who lived in the YWCA.

The website does not include any interactive elements. and, as far as I could see there are no opportunities to communicate with the site’s creators. Having said this, during my on-site visit I spoke to the director of the Center and she mentioned that they are in the process of finalizing a new web strategy and they hope to develop more online exhibits in the future.

I believe digital media could be used to offer visitors the opportunity to expand the scope of their visit. The on-site exhibits are clearly limited by the reduced space that the house offers. Online exhibits could help display more objects, documents and information and complement and expand what the on-site exhibit offers. For instance, it would be interesting to see some of the trade routes that were opened during the time of Israel Crane, I think adding interactive maps to both the on-site and online exhibits could really help better contextualize the history of Montclair and the role it played in connecting port cities like Newark with farming lands in the interior of New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Some of these maps were on display in the archive section of the center. I think they, together with other documents, could be digitized and added to a more robust online exhibit. In this way the house and its exhibits can serve as a window into a much larger history.

Introduction

I am a student in the Certificate of Digital Public Humanities and an associate professor of history at Montclair State University. I have a limited background in Digital Humanities. I took the first course of the certificate, Introduction to Digital Humanities, last fall. I have also been a host for the New Books Network, where I have done many interviews for the New Books in African Studies channel.

My interest in Digital Public History stems from my work on historiography and philosophy of history and a general interest on how the discipline of history has evolved over the past 200 years. I am particularly interested in how the epistemological and ethical obligations for historians have changed in light of new technologies, but also as a result of changing geo-political landscapes since World War II. 

My goal this semester is to broaden my understanding of the history of Public History and to acquire the fundamental skills that will allow me to develop a public history project, and also introduce my students to this particular way of practicing and studying history. 

(Re)Defining Digital Humanities

I initially defined Digital Humanities as “an interdisciplinary field that explores how digital tools can facilitate, transform and/or improve the work of humanities scholars. It also seeks to critically examine the evolution and social-cultural and ethical impact of digital technologies.” After taking this course, I think I can maintain the general characterization of Digital Humanities as an interdisciplinary field, however, I do not think it is accurate to limit the object of study to the exploration of digital tools as applied to subjects, or questions in the Humanities.

My original definition revealed a rather static and narrow understanding of the problems that Digital Humanities scholarship seeks to address. Something that I had not considered, and that became clear early on in the course, was the centrality of the process of digitization. Digital Humanities, as a field of study, has evolved as it has become possible to digitize sources and materials, and necessary to develop the tools and methods that will allow scholars to work with digitized objects. Thus, digitization has created new challenges and forced a re-framing of old debates. This is illustrated by the questions about copyright protections, what are the appropriate and lawful ways to share and copy digitized materials, and what kind of metadata can best be used to preserve, store, and describe these items . Digitization has also created new opportunities, such as the ability to examine large corpus of text which could not have been read by a single person, or expanded access for more people to participate in the process of knowledge production.

These opportunities, however, do not come without their drawbacks, and it is also the work of Digital Humanities scholars to be clear-eyed, reflective and proactive about the gains and potential dangers that come with digitization. By allowing more people access to the process of knowledge production we run the risk of spreading misinformation, putting knowledge in the hands of dangerous individuals, and maybe even undermining the value of work done by professional scholars.

In light of these points, I would amend my original definition in this way: “Digital Humanities is an interdisciplinary field that examines the process of digitization and reflects on its ethical, social, and legal implications. The field seeks to responsibly develop methods, best practices and tools for the preservation, use, analysis, and presentation of  digitized materials “. I believe this definition better captures the role that the Digital Humanities play in advancing our understanding of digitization as a distinctive process of expression, representation and analysis of the human experience. 

Podcasts and the Digital Humanities

More than any other medium, podcasting allows creators and listeners to establish a sense of shared experience. One could argue that a writer seeks to achieve such a connection with readers, however, it is undeniable that podcasting has a greater degree of success on this count. One reason for this may simply be the feeling of direct connection created by the human voice, this evokes a “presence” that we do not quite get when we read a text. In any case, this feeling of shared experience, of being “in the presence” or even “witnessing” something through our senses before it appeals to our imagination, creates a sense of immediacy and proximity to the stories or information communicated through the podcast. 

Humanities podcasts are also able to incorporate resources that are used in the written form, but not as effectively. Most scholarly writing uses both narrative and analytical styles. In both instances, authors make reference to the work of other scholars to strengthen their arguments and provide examples. The podcast allows for such references to be added in structured interviews or in a more conversational style. In Throughline’s episode “The Lavender Scare”, for instance, the hosts follow a narrative structure that incorporates the voices of scholars as well as actors readings quotes from historical sources. All of these are used to advance the narrative, as opposed to being presented in response to direct questions. Consolation Prize combines both styles. It follows primarily a narrative structure and the voices of actors and scholars are also used to advance the narrative. However, there are also instances in which scholars are either responding to questions or, reflecting on sources and interpretations. The World of Benjamin Franklin falls squarely in the conversational/ interview style of podcast. Here Liz Covart, the host, starts a conversation with a scholar. Sometimes responses offer a narrative or a description, but they are also pieces of analysis, interpretation and reflection. In all three cases, the podcast format enables listeners to feel like they are on the same journey of exploration as the host and guests, and it is this sense of shared experience that, I believe, is most successfully achieved in the podcast medium.

Podcasting may be seen as the great disseminator of humanities scholarship. By creating a sense of connection between the general public and the producers of humanities scholarship, podcast are able to communicate scholarly knowledge with much greater ease and confidence than other media. At a time when attention spans are waning and people seem less inclined and interested in going through the trouble of following complex stories and analysis, podcast help create a environment of ease and trust where listeners may be able to relax and leave their guard down as they learn something new.

What has made podcasts into this powerful medium are precisely the digital tools and formats that are now available to scholars and the public at large. In the past, audio production required sophisticated recording and production equipment, not to mention access to the airwaves. Today, there are many services that enable quality recording, software that facilitates production, and the internet through which audio files can be transmitted with great ease. Although producing a podcast does require time, technical expertise, equipment and funding, these are much more affordable and accessible than ever. The entry costs for scholars have been seriously reduced and the ability to reach listeners has multiplied. In this regard, podcasts may represent one of the most aspirational aspects of digital humanities, in that it brings scholarship closer to the public. Unlike crowdsourcing, podcasting does not necessarily bring the public into the production of knowledge. However, the best type of podcasting will enable members of the public a better understanding of what scholarship is and how it works.

Digital Humanities and Crowdsourcing

Back in the mid-1990s, as an undergraduate student,  I participated in a project where we were recruited to make an inventory of Mexican history secondary sources available in the public and private libraries located in Mexico City. We were all given a long a long list of books and we were charged with visiting one library, determine whether there were copies of the listed books  in the library assigned to us, and add other sources that were not included in the original list. At the time, only a few academic libraries had digitized their catalogues and, in most cases, the process was still ongoing. What was still not available was the possibility to search these catalogues remotely. Thus, the goal of our project was to produce a bibliography that could allow students and researchers to locate particular sources without having to spend time visiting different libraries throughout the city. A project like this became unnecessary when digital catalogues were made available online. In this case, technology was able to solve one problem, but crowdsourcing remains a useful approach for processes and activities for which modern technology has not been able to provide solutions.

In my last post I talked about how AI chatbots, such as ChatGPT, were the latest technological response to the question of how to process vast amounts of information. Despite the progress that AI technology has achieved, it seems clear that there are still good reasons to continue using human beings in the process of producing knowledge. The idea of using large numbers of people to collect or process large bodies of documents, sources or data is not new. As my experience shows, this approach has been useful when the volume of the materials that needed to be processed was too large, and the nature of the work did not require too much training or expertise. The advent of digital technologies has made it possible to reach more people as potential contributors. Also, the increasing digitization of documents and other types of sources has created a (hopefully) virtuous circle in which crowdsourcing can be used as a means to increase access to historical and cultural materials and, by creating greater access, it can also encourage more engagement from the public.

As we have seen in this module, crowdsourcing is useful to open the process of knowledge production to a wider public. This can be done by asking people to write and edit entries in a project such as Wikipedia, or to contribute individual experiences during a particular event, as was possible in the September 11 Digital Archive. In both cases, members of the public are instructed to work under a set of rules, but are otherwise encouraged to be part of a collective exercise of data collection and interpretation. In these cases, technology has made it possible to reach a larger number of people while also lowering the barriers for their participation.

Other uses for crowdsourcing involve the processing of large volumes of material that cannot be achieved  using computers. Projects of transcription such as Transcribing Bentham, or description of photographs such as Nasa on the Commons, emanate from the need to make materials more accessible through digitization. But this goal also requires the infrastructure by which documents and images can be more accurately catalogued, searched, and studied. Current technology enables us to publish digital photographs and documents on library and museum websites; but it is not yet capable to read all types of handwriting or describe the contents of a photograph. For these, we still need people. So it is not surprise that some large digitization projects are often accompanied by a crowdsourcing component. An example of this is Linked Jazz where members of the public are asked to characterize the relationships that were described in the interviews with Jazz artists. 

Thus, projects that lend themselves to a crowdsourcing approach will typically involve the creation or processing of large volume of materials, where contributors need little or no expertise, and that are aimed at expanding access to the process of knowledge production. Transcription, basic annotation and description, collection, are processes that, under the right planning and circumstances, can be achieved through crowdsourcing.

Careful planning does make a difference to the success of crowdsourcing projects. First, it is important to cast a wide enough net to reach as many people as possible. Second, it is vital to create the infrastructure and incentives that can keep contributors engaged. This is best achieved when a project can explain how the use, preparation and processing of sources lies at the foundation of knowledge production; thus turning what are often seen as meaningless tasks into essential steps in the preservation, dissemination and interpretation of sources. By allowing people access to sources that would normally be reserved to specialists, crowdsourcing projects start by establishing a relationship of trust that is further enhanced when contributors are entrusted to re-tell, read, transcribe, describe or interpret. This trust, however, can be intimidating if contributors do not feel supported and confident that they will have the time to learn while on the job. Thus, it is vital that crowdsourcing projects develop mechanisms for support and communication with contributors and interfaces that are easy to use. But the most important incentive, in my view, is the feeling that by committing to a task, contributors can develop expertise and the value of their work will continue to increase. I believe this cultivates greater engagement and ownership of the overall project. 

Ultimately, the success of crowdsourcing projects can be measured by their ability to engage the public in the process of knowledge production. If contributors feel they can enhance their skills and  are empowered to make meaningful contributions, they will remain committed to the value and success of the larger project

Crowdsourcing

More than 20 years after its creation, Wikipedia illustrates the benefits and pitfalls of crowdsourced information. What started as a site widely distrusted by most, it managed to create a model for open collaboration that has gradually earned a healthy measure of trust among the public and even the scholarly community. One reason why many of us have come to appreciate Wikipedia, despite its many flaws, is that  it has worked hard to bolster what my teachers used to call its “critical apparatus”. That is, it has created the means for other scholars to critique the content and structure of the material presented in its many pages.

As a young student of history, I was taught that the citations in my papers constituted the “critical apparatus.” Among scholars, it is through citations and references that one is able to support one’s claims. The critical apparatus created through these tools constitute the main source of authority for any given piece of scholarship. However, the public’s reliance on reference works, such as encyclopedias, is contingent on their reputation, which in itself is built upon its editorial processes and the people they employ. Wikipedia’s model of open collaboration encourages the use of citations and references, but also allows the public not only to participate in the editorial process, but to see what changes are being proposed for individual articles and to discuss said changes with other individuals also involved in editing a page. This opening-up of the editorial process adds, in my opinion, to the critical apparatus of Wikipedia articles. 

The examination of the “Digital Humanities” article in Wikipedia serves as a good illustration of how tools such as the “Revision History” or the “Talk History” expand our ability to evaluate the quality of a page. A cursory read of the Wikipedia article on “Digital Humanities” shows a reasonably well-organized article with numerous references, a bibliography and recommendations for further reading. Given what we have learned about the field of Digital Humanities, it is reasonable to ask how complete and how up-to-date the article is, how recently, and how often has the page been edited and to what degree. When we looked for a term or topic in a traditional encyclopedia we would accept that, many topics, would be out-of-date given the time lag between when an article was written and published and when it was read. The level of authority on any given piece decreases as time passes. However, as my father used to say about  national Constitutions, the authority of any set of statements requires a balance between stability and flexibility. I would argue that the authority of an encyclopedia article is also contingent on how stable and flexible they are. The fact that an article can be updated as new information becomes available, but not change radically from one version to the next, is a factor that adds to its authority.

The “Digital Humanities” article was last edited on October 2023 but, for the past two years the edits have been relatively minor. One can appreciate this by looking at the revision history tool, where it is possible to see when the page was first created and one one can examine every single version of the article. The revision history will show the date when an edit was done, how many bytes were added, how many words were added or deleted, and there will be a brief description of the changes. One also has the possibility of comparing two versions. Although this particular feature was difficult to use because the changes appear out of the context of the larger page. I found it easier to specifically open different versions and then choose what versions I wanted to explore further. 

Other important information that can be ascertained from the revision history is included in the the Statistics information. Here, one can find how many times a particular page has been edited and at what rate. In the case of the “Digital Humanities” article we can see that since 2006, when the page was originally created, it has been edited 1009 times, 459 editors have made contributions. In average, each user has done 2.2 edits and the page has been edited, in average, every 6.4 days. However, most of the most substantive edits took place in the earlier years of the page. During the past 365 days, only 7 edits have taken place and these have been relatively minor. 

As a reader one can take some confidence of the fact that the page seems that have reached some stability and that further changes to it seem to be of a minor nature. As a student in the Digital Humanities one could wonder whether this means that debates about the definition, history, and scope of the field have been resolved. For this, the Talk History tool may prove very useful. Here, one can see what have been the issues that have preoccupied the editors, how the explain an edit, when they seek comments or advise on a particular change. In the case of the “Digital Humanities” article we can see that the “Concerns” section of the talk history, includes a lot of comments about the history and the definition of Digital humanities. There are also questions about balancing the different types of tools that are included in the Methods, and Projects of Digital Humanities.

Traditional encyclopedias presented themselves as sources of authority due to their editorial processes. Some were open about who were the authors of their articles, others kept those anonymous. In an attempt to foster participation, while also maintaining transparency and accountability, Wikipedia offers contributors both options . One can add an edit to a page without disclosing a name or without creating a user profile. In this case, the edit is recorded under an ISP. But many contributors do create a user name and a profile, and this can be used as another means to read and evaluate a particular entry. By looking at the Statistics page one can determine which contributors have made the most contributions and when. From there one can also see their profiles, if they have created one. From the ten most prolific contributors to the “Digital Humanities” article (at least in terms of words); two are just identified by their ISP, and two have profile names but no information under their profile. Two more are students participating in a Wikipedia-related curriculum. Only about five of them have been active within the last five years. Which again speaks to how relatively stable the page has become. Only one of the contributors, its creator in fact, identifies himself as a scholar and professional in the digital humanities. A couple of contributors identify themselves as scholars in computing or the humanities. 

Learning about the identities, and maybe even qualifications, of contributors may be more relevant to students and/or scholars that to the casual visitor. The latter can rely on the general Assessment of a page which can also be found in the Statistics page and explained in the Assessments page. But for scholars, students or other experts, learning about the contributors to a page is very useful to contextualize and understand the criteria they use when explaining and justifying their editorial decisions. The revision history and the talk history enable us to do a historiographical analysis of any given article, the more we know about the authors of these versions the more informed our analysis and evaluation will be. 

As an organization, Wikipedia has made substantial investments in building a critical apparatus that supports its reputation as an authoritative source of knowledge; not because Wikipedia articles are perfect, but because anyone can identify its sources and follow the process by which they have been created. In contrast, ChatGPT has stayed closer to a notion of “the wisdom of crowds” in that its source of authority is contingent upon the vast volumes of information used to teach be chatbot. In the case of Wikipedia, the crowds involved in creating its articles are people, engaged in an ongoing discussion of what to add, delete or change. ChatGPT uses much of this knowledge to produce elegantly explained answers in a way that seems very simple and clear to the reader. However, we do not get any sense of the sources that were used or the criteria used to select information. In this case ChatGPT lacks a “critical apparatus” on which to rest its authority. It purely relies on a crowd of anonymous sources. ChatGPT is able to elegantly synthesize large bodies of knowledge in the most clear and simple way. However, sources like Wikipedia demonstrate that even a work of synthesis needs to make choices and it is important for readers to understand what are the justifications for these choices. The questions of accuracy that we used to have about Wikipedia are multiplied in the case of ChatGPT since we have no mechanism to assess its accuracy, completeness, or judgements. ChatGPT can produce very clear explanations and narratives, but in this case, clarity may obscure the inherent complexity and messiness of knowledge production.

Comparing Tools

The tools examined during the past three modules, Voyant, Kepler, and Palladio, allowed for different levels of data analysis and visualization. One could see these tools are serving different needs dictated by the kind of data-set that need to examined. Voyant enables researchers to text-mine large volumes of mostly unstructured text. Kepler produces map visualizations that require files that have been tagged for geographical locations. Palladio creates network visualizations that required highly structured files.

One could say that Voyant offered the opportunity of a relatively open-ended exploration of the WPA Slave Narratives.As a text mining tool, Voyant proved to be very effective when examining a large volume of relatively unstructured data. The five tools included in Voyant (Cirrus, Reader, Trends, Summary and Contexts) provide different entry points into the data and different ways in which said data could be re-organized, explored and visualized. Although Voyant is largely meant to be used by researchers, I can also see how it could be used by public historians, museum professionals and teachers. The Cirrus tool, for instance, produces powerful visualization that can enrich lectures and exhibits. In contrast, I found the Trends tool more difficult to manipulate and read. It was easy to see how many times a word would appear in the different State collections, but I could not easily explore other kinds of trends such chronological distribution, age or gender.  These limitations are understandable given that text mining seeks for individual words or groups of words, and not for categories of words.

Kepler used more structured data than the one used in Voyant. For this reason, we were able to illustrate different aspects of the WPA Slave Narratives. The maps we produced, using geo-tagged CSV files, allowed us to see the relative volume of interviews done in a particular region. It was also possible to create a map that presented a timeline. Yet, the visualizations produced with Kepler did not give us any idea about the content of the interviews. Thus, I found Kepler to be a very good complement to Voyant. While Voyant provided us with the possibility of analyzing the content of the interviews, Kepler enabled us to visualize the broader geographical and chronological context in which the interviews were performed. Also, I found the visualizations created with Kepler were easier to read and manipulate than those produced to Voyant. This is not a criticism of the effectiveness of Voyant. When working with Kepler we used a smaller and more structured data-set prepared to answer more focused questions about time, place and volume; while Voyant was meant to facilitate a more open ended exploration of the ideas contained in a much larger set of documents. 

The last tool we used was Palladio, a network analysis and visualization tool. From all the tools examined, Palladio required the most rich and structured data-set. The goal of this tool is to allow researcher to identify patterns of connection or relationships between different categories of data. Palladio was very effective when producing visualization of different types of relationships. For instance, we are able to create a map where we saw where slaves had been enslaved in relation to where they were interviewed. We were also able to illustrate connections between the topics addressed in the interviews and the gender, age, or type of work of former slaves. In this regard, Palladio proved to be the most flexible of all three tools in terms of the kinds of questions it could help researchers explore. But the power of the tool was only made possible by the quality of the data and the way in which it was structured. 

Experimenting with these tools made me more aware of the challenges and potential inherent to the use of digitized sources. Ultimately, the use of any of these tools will require that data is digitized and structured to some degree and in light of particular questions. For this reason, I think it is important to have different types of tools that work with different types of files. Tools that allow for more open-ended questions like Voyant, or for a more focused exploration like Palladio. In either case, the larger challenge is to ensure that the digitization and preparation of the data is done thoughtfully and professionally. The ultimate effectiveness of any of these tools will largely depend on the quality of the data and the expertise of the researchers using it.

Palladio and Network Graphs

Network visualization projects allow users to observe the amount and overall shape of connections between individuals, institutions, locations, etc. The information used to document these connections can be extracted from different types of digitized materials. Arguably, the power of this type of visualization lies in its ability to highlight patterns a of discreet connections that are not easy to discern in large text corpora.

Working with Palladio made it possible to see more clearly the strengths and weaknesses of network visualizations. One point that was made very clear in the readings, and in the projects we examined, is that this type of visualizations require a careful and informed preparation of the data that is to be used. For this example, we were given three csv. files from the WPA Slave Narratives project that had been prepared to be used with Palladio. Even with this clear advantage, it took me a good forty minutes to upload the files. Every time I tried to load a file I got a message alerting me to an error in one of the lines. But I could not figure out what the error was. In the end, I decided not to use a downloaded file, but I simply opened it directly from the link and copied and pasted the contents into Palladio. Somehow, this did the trick and I was able start the work.  This was just a good example of how useful it is to understand the requirements of the software and the ways in which data should be presented.

For our first exercise we were asked to do a map visualization. In this case, we were to connect the place where interviewees had been enslaved with the place where they were interviewed. The first map visualization used the background of a land map, which was useful to get an idea of how far or how close former slaves had worked before they moved to Alabama. The map showed that the majority of slaves interviewed in Alabama had been enslaved relatively closely to where they were interviewed. Very few came from further north. The second visualization removed the map base, leaving an image that resembled more a network graph, but without a what nods and edges represented. This was a good way of understanding better the differences between a map visualization and a network graph and the possibilities of each of these tools. 

A third exercise asked us to produce a network graph. In this case, the particular features of the network visualization (the ability to highlight one type of nod, to make them bigger or smaller depending on the number of interviews) made the visualization more useful to discern the how many slaves interviewed in particular Alabama locations had come from other places. By focusing on some of the larger nods, a researcher could find some meaningful patters about the movement of slaves during the years after emancipation. However, I have to admit that my knowledge of the historiography on this question only allowed for some general observations, which, in this case confirmed what we had seen in the map, that slaves came from many different places, but mostly had not moved very far from where they had been enslaved.

These exercises illustrate what can be both a weakness and a strength of network visualization. Network graphs can tell a lot of information about discreet types of data, but they can only handle so many variables at one time, a very large volume of information can produce a visualization that is difficult to read. However, Palladio allows users to filter some of the data that goes into a visualization. For instance, we were asked to create a graph that illustrated the relationship between Interviewers and Interview Subjects. We were then able to use facets to further filter the data that went into the visualization. In this case we chose to filter by Gender and Type of  Work. I was not able to discern any particular patterns from this exercise, but it showed that the strength of network analysis relies on its ability to focus one’s attention on specific types of connections. Some will prove to be very revealing, while others much less so. But the possibility of changing the elements of the graph and exploring different configurations is where the possibilities of Palladio proved most useful.

Needless to say, however, the power and flexibility of the tool is largely contingent on the data that is used. The last set of exercises confirmed both that network analysis allows for very interesting explorations of data, but also that such data needs to be already rich and adequately formatted to allow for a successful exploration. In the last set of exercises we created network graphs that connected gender, type of work, age, and interviewer to the topics that were explored in the interviews. The different visualizations generated showed that neither of these factors seemed to have a dramatic impact on the topics addressed by former slaves. However, these observations are based on the general overall visualizations. Subtle differences may yet to be discovered if we were to further filter the data. Which brings me back to the factors that can make or break this kind of tool, first the quality and richness of the data itself, and the level of expertise of those designing and using the tool.

Could this not be asked of any other research project, digital or otherwise? Is the expense and preparation invested in this kind of project proportional to the time saved or the potential findings? In my original review I concluded that it is not always clear that the research gains justify the investment involved in creating and deploying this kind of tool. However, I also observed that what is gained may be of a different nature. Network analysis tools are not tools for the public historian hoping to bring historical thinking and historical sources to a larger public. These are sophisticated tools of analysis that should be developed by experts for experts. Their design and use require serious understanding of the sources and historiography. I am sure that had I been better versed in the history of slavery and emancipation in Alabama, some of these visualizations would have been much more meaningful to me. My experience working with Palladio, however, encouraged me to be a better historian, to be more thoughtful and intentional about the questions I ask, more careful about the assumptions I make about my evidence, and ultimately, more flexible and creative about how sources can help answer old and new questions. As it was stated repeatedly in our readings, network visualizations are not here to replace the exercise of reading through sources or becoming familiar with historiography, they are here to make us better thinkers and users of sources and historiography.