Citizen Archivist

When I told my wife that I was transcribing old weather data from 19th century U.S. Navy ship logs, she noted that it sounded like something I’d be into. She clarified, “you’ve stopped studying history, and started doing history!” While I was getting frustrated with the user interface at OldWeather.com, she saw the enterprise in which I was engaged. Once she contextualized the practice I really saw citizen archivists for what they were, historians.

What an incredible means by which the public can be welcomed behind the proverbial curtain. There are many benefits of crowdsourcing archivists’ practices

  1. There is a lot of work to be done, a lot.
  2. The tasks are simple and do not require any real training.
  3. The result is significantly more rewarding than winning a level on Candy Crush.

The amount of data that needs to be transcribed is astounding, and, while handwriting recognition software may catch up, this seems to be a task best performed by humans. We live in a multi-screen society, where it is not uncommon to have phones in our hands and laptops in our laps while watching TV. The tasks at OldWeather.com can be achieved while watching Netflix, and, although they don’t have the flashing lights, the achievement is much more significant that mindless mobile games.

Since I have made citizen archivism seem utopic, I want to bring up some of the problems. I could imagine a high school teacher assigning this as homework, this would be bad. Citizen archivists have to have an intrinsic respect for the data they are transcribing. Wrong data is worse than none at all. This is not an activity that one can force someone else to do. There shouldn’t be any added incentive, the transcription is the reward.

Another problem that I assume befalls potential citizen archivists is patience with the user interface. It takes a minute or two to understand how the software works, in this minute or two, I am sure, many users get distracted and give up. A message to those impatient users, stick with it because doing history can be much more rewarding than studying history.

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