Crowdsourcing history: telling all the stories

TolstrupFamilyTiltedWe have a chance now to tell all of the stories … or at least more of them … the ones about farmers, presidents, merchants, generals, laborers, teachers, kings, and homemakers.

The technological revolution underway in genealogy has the potential to revise the way we think about history. Previously hard-to-obtain information is so much more widely available that anyone with Internet access can access a wide range of historical documents, maps, photographs, and more. As more people take advantage of this chance to explore their family histories more deeply, sharing discoveries along the journey with distant cousins and strangers alike, the frame on the picture of history is expanding. Whether it will significantly change our understanding of any given era is yet to be seen, but it will certainly enrich it.

The phenomenon is not that different from the way we come together to fund causes through GoFundMe, support our favorite independent journalists through Patreon, or contribute information on a wide array of topics through Wikipedia. As individuals uncover and share the stories of their own ancestors, we are crowdsourcing history.

This can be seen in the number of people cooperating in online family trees or using social media, including blogs like this one, to share the stories they uncover. The number of people participating in DNA testing also makes it possible for experts to trace scientifically the migration patterns that have taken place across time. Individuals  volunteer to transcribe historic documents from the comfort of their homes for indexing, making the information accessible to others worldwide.


William I, Prince of Orange

The traditional writers of history are professional and academic historians. They tell us about kings and princes, about the rulers and the wars they fought, and about the laws and economies they established. These stories are published in textbooks, then approved by school boards or professors before being passed on to students. Or they are filtered through influential publishers before making their way to mass market readers. These are important stories that serve a crucial purpose in our shared understanding of the times that preceded us.

But the surge of interest in genealogy and family history raises the question of how many stories out there are as yet untold … or even yet to be discovered. These are the stories of how individuals from all walks of life participated in and were affected by the times in which they lived. The kings, rulers, wars, laws, and economies described by the professional historians play an important role in our understanding of these individual stories, but they cannot take the place of them.

Genealogy is older than the country itself and has always been an important part of history. But the ever-increasing availability of information and ways to share it has increased the number who can participate in the endeavor, as well as those whose stories will ultimately be told.

An obvious caveat is that as participation increases, so does the need for healthy skepticism. Not every hobbyist is going to pass on information that a professional historian or genealogist will find to be of acceptable quality. However, one of the benefits of crowdsourcing is the capacity for correction, so when errors are made by one participant, they can be discovered and set right by another.

While the notion of “crowdsourcing history” occurred to me in a random moment of reflection, I naturally wondered if others were exploring the same concept. Not surprisingly, they are. A quick google search shows common use of the term and a variety of writers exploring the idea, even actively recruiting participants for their projects.

While there are plenty of drawbacks to the technological age in which we live, this sharing of individual stories … this crowdsourcing of our history … is one of the good parts.

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