Crowdsourcing on the Internet presents a slew of problems and blessings.   One of the benefits of crowdsourcing is that the collections created online are “far larger, more diverse, and more inclusive than traditional archives.” (Cohen and Rosenzweig) This upending of traditional hierarchies is not something new to the Internet. It did the same thing with the invention of eBook publishing. Writers who could not afford to have their books published traditionally now can, bypassing the rigorous selection process of a traditional publisher. This easier path to publishing also has allowed more low quality works to be published. This same idea of quality standards can be applied to the digitally born collections created by crowdsourcing. Sometimes, the quality of digitization of a photograph or sound recording of an oral history is poor. This populist form of history does not have the strict guidelines that the archivists do, so the material collected is not always high quality.

The highly fluid or “ephemeral” nature of primary sources “born digital” make for an interesting discussion about the practicalities of using these sources in your work as an historian. (Cohen and Rosezweig) For instance, in my current Master’s project I would like to use comments and pictures posted on a page for a Facebook Group for hunters on and around the Colville Reservation. Most of the group members are Native, and they post opinions, pictures of their kills, the weapons they use, and information on such hunting events as the “Tribal Elder Hunt.” This page is a fount of information on my topic, which is exploring the revival of traditional foods among the Plateau. But how do I cite this information? Can I use specific names when I am quoting the comments they left? What about the pictures that are posted? Does copyright apply? Do I need to ask permission to use these primary sources? Facebook pages are highly unstable, as well. The feed is constantly growing, and people do sometimes delete their posts. How can another scholar find that primary source I referenced when it is not a static object or document? These are the questions that I am wrestling with right now. These are questions that I am facing as an historian right now.

This weeks readings focus on the building of a website and ensuring that said website is preserved. To sum Cohen and Rosenzweig’s recommendations you need to “back up, create simple, well documented standardized code.”   I find this information helpful only if you are going to create your own website from scratch, which is very unrealistic for myself, and for a lot historians because of a lack of funds and coding skills. A more practical approach would be to use a platform that is already in place, and maintained at someone else’s expense or by you at a low price. For example, Facebook is a great tool for presenting historical information. One librarian from the University of Nevada created 2 Facebook accounts for real people from 1910. He posted photos, and created posts that made sense for these people, sometimes quoting the archival information she had available. A link to an article on this page is here. Another possibility is using such sites as WordPress, Weebly, or Wix. These are all platforms that can be utilized by people with limited funding, time, or skill.

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3 thoughts on “Using Digital Sources in Traditional Historical Work

  1. It is interesting that you point out how something as simple as sighting a source has changed dramatically in the digital age. How can we prove that facebook post was actually written if the author decides to delete the comment or their page all together. Should we be paranoid and take screen shots of everything we encounter? We surely won’t, but these are interesting topics that will need to be flushed out in the near future.

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  2. Unfortunately I think you may be right with the best option being screenshots. If you are citing it for professional grad work, there may need to be some sort of paper trail just in case. That could be something that you use the “notes” post option on facebook for, just to save those screenshots and that data.You can choose how public you want it to be and treat it like a source journal for your data.

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  3. I also thought your question about facebook comments is interesting. And I agree that screenshots probably are a safe bet for creating a paper trail. Thank you as well for sharing your actual experiences and difficulties as a grad student in working with this aspect of digital history.

    I do have another question for you as well. Do you think social media such as facebook offers an advantage when studying Native American history? For my undergrad I did a thesis paper on the history of the Shawnee during the Revolutionary War. Sources were hard to come by, and then Native American interpretations and criticisms of those sources were even more scarce. I can see how social media could connect you to valuable resources and people who would want to contribute to your project.

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