The central tension in crowdsourcing history, apparent in almost all of this week’s readings, is the issue of access and authority. This tension is not limited to digital history, as the pre-digital practice of oral history has long noted the importance of anonymity in collecting people’s stories. While the historians always prefer to know as much as possible about the contributor of their sources in order to facilitate analysis (a interview with a labor union leader will be read and evaluated much differently than that of a factory manager or a average laborer), many contributor to both oral history or digitally collected history are less willing to participate or be fully honest if their name and identifying info is attached to their interview or contribution. If anything this is even more true for digital history, as most internet users have a higher expectation of privacy and anonymity than the participants in an oral history project. To this is added the convenience factor, the more data or effort required to submit a contribution will have a direct effect on the number of visitors willing to contribute. Digital historians, like oral historians, must therefore balance their desire for metadata with their desire for a higher level of contributions.
The question of access goes beyond this debate between data and anonymity, however, as many crowdsourced digital history projects involve the every day user not just in the contribution but also in the editing and writing of history. The most prominent example of this is Wikipedia, but it can also be found in projects such as the Transcribe Bentham project which allows all comers to help transcribe and digitize the works of Jeremey Bentham. Wikipedia especially has been contentious for historians, as it values consensus over expertise and suffers from many faults in coverage, as its content is mainly driven by what people are interested in rather than a balanced coverage of history, and bias, despite its avowal of a neutral point of view. Despite the issues raised by allowing all comers to contribute and edit articles, it is impossible to argue that it has provided a much more massive corpus of openly available work than would be possible with a more rigorous expertise focused approach (see the relative failure of Nupedia detailed by Roy Rosenzweig).
Another issue with Wikipedia, pointed out by Leslie Madsen-Banks, is the unrepresentative nature of its contributors, who are dominated by male, internet-savvy, and English-speaking individuals. Thus, even while Wikipedia’s format and process arguably allow for more varied viewpoints than traditional history, it is a potential that has been stymied by the biases of the contributing population. This reflects a second issue of access: even when completely open access is allowed, it is shaped largely by the project’s (all projects, not just Wikipedia) ability to attract contributors. This is a critical part of any digital collection project, and requires what Roy Rosenzweig and Dan Cohen have described as “magnet content” to bring contributors to the site and convince them to participate. Perhaps the greatest magnet content is other contributions, but this can be supplemented by direct contact thru email, media coverage and marketing, or social networking. As Shelia A. Brennan and T. Mills Kelly have pointed out, this can also involve outreach to relevant groups in the “analog world” offline, and special attention should be paid to providing avenues for individuals without internet access or skills to contribute (the Hurricane Digital Media Bank used both voicemail and mail in reply cards).
The issue of access and authority will thus overlay many of the decisions made by digital historians seeking to crowdsource history, and indeed this tension is a central theme in debate over almost all aspects of the “democratizing” influence of digital history. However, as access is one of the central benefits offered by the digital humanities, limiting it in the interest of greater academic authority must be a seriously considered decision.