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The American Historian


The generation of communal knowledge is not a new phenomenon. In the late nineteenth century, the Oxford English Dictionary solicited volunteers to submit words and their usage for inclusion in the dictionary ( 1 ). Carl Becker, writing in 1932 on what was already an old discussion in the historical profession, noted that "if the essence of history is the memory of things said and done, then it is obvious that every normal person, Mr. Everyman, knows some history" (2). The historian Jo Guldi's work on participatory mapping shows that urban planners in the middle of the twentieth century attempted to learn from and listen to members of a community.

There is plenty of precedent, then, for harnessing participatory knowledge. Today, the digital turn has offered new technologies to engage with communities and significantly widened the number of possible participants. The success of recent digital crowdsourcing projects, including Flickr Commons, the National Archive's Citizen Archivist Dashboard, History Harvest, and Transcribe Bentham have demonstrated the degree of success that crowdsourcing offers to cultural heritage and public digital history. Like any research, a crowdsourcing project requires careful planning and an understanding of what is meant by crowdsourcing in a specific project. In this essay we discuss the importance of these definitions, describe a few successful and well-known crowdsourced projects, and discuss one of the projects we are working on here at Stanford's Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA).

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