OAH Report: Early-Republic Crowdsourcing and Communal Email

Greetings! Your Making History Podcast correspondent is ready to report on Thursday at the OAH – even though he writes from an airplane on his way back home.

On Thursday, the conference was hitting its stride: the book exhibit was lively despite its dungeon location, with two great history reads, Shadows at Dawn, by Karl Jacoby, and Passing Strange, by Martha Sandweiss, being signed in paperback and handed out for free. The Hilton’s one-hour-free-Internet-in-the-lobby policy brought folks together at the outlet-studded high perches, with the location between the doors, the elevators, and the bar giving a communal feel to the digital checkups.

With a shortened trip, I missed the afternoon workshops on podcasting and Web 2.0, including a chance to hear Brian Balogh talk about his great collaboration on the radio program/podcast BackStory With the American History Guys with Ed Ayers and Peter Onuf. And it may seem like cheating to report on my own panel, “Where is the Culture of Print?” But my co-panelist Robb Haberman and our commentator Trish Loughran made some great points about print culture and communication networks in the early republic which seem quite relevant for understand the intersection of history and technology.

Haberman described efforts by an early imprint called the  Boston Magazine to survey the country in 1780s, and continuations of the effort by the Massachusetts Historical Society in the 1790s. The Magazine planned to have a gazetteer describing every town in the nation, its key businesses, landscape features, and more; they barely finished Boston and Sussex County. The Historical Society outsourced the work, sending surveys to town leaders throughout the country; they got responses from the Boston area, and a bit more of New England. An early American effort at crowdsourcing had failed.

Living in the era of zillions of Internet reviews, these historical examples can remind us to be suspicious of who is volunteering information, and what they plan to gain. (I am reminded of my visit to Cairo more than a decade ago, when many “helpful” Cairo residents gave directions that all led through their cousin’s shop.) Can crowdsourcing work for historical knowledge, whether in Wikipedia articles or the status of job searches? Like other kinds of surveys, do we need to know more about response rates and demographics, and think about “margins of error”? Clearly every student doing an assignment does not produce the same quality of work, so we should expect quality glitches in crowdsourced data as well.

Of course, crowdsourcing can lead to brilliant gems turning up: as Loughran reminded the room, Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia was intended as a response to a French survey sent to all the colonies—Jefferson was simply the only one to respond, and at length. Loughran urged attendees to combine an interest in the where of print, when it comes to regions, networks, and city formation, with the what of print – remembering that print gives readers only an illusion of intimacy with authors, a clever effect of a “translocal, transhistorical fiction that looks like knowledge.” The Internet may be our most familiar way to bridge time and space now, but its lessons offer important ways to reconsider the earlier history of communication technologies as well.

Readers, any more tips from the OAH on digital humanities or the innovative writing of history?

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