Forum Reference Desk: The Knowledge of the Crowd

By Forum Reference Desk posted 05-17-2013 10:36

 Documerica Then and Now, a photo documentary project, uses crowdsourcing to get photos of sites across the country. | Credit: USEPAGOV
The dictionary defines crowdsourcing as "the practice of obtaining needed services, ideas, or content by soliciting contributions from a large group of people and especially from the online community …." Though the term is relatively recent, crowdsourcing  itself is not such a novel phenomenon.

As this timeline by DesignCrowd indicates, an early attempt at harnessing the crowd’s knowledge was recorded in 1714. That year, the British government held a public competition seeking a solution to the problem of determining longitude at sea.  Among many hopeful contenders, John Harrison won with his maritime chronometer.

In 2006 in San Francisco, the National Trust for Historic Preservation launched the Partners in Preservation (PIP) initiative jointly with American Express, which granted $1 million for preservation efforts across seven Bay Area counties. The Trust invited the community to take part in the initiative; residents voted for their favorite historic site out of a slate of 25 candidates over a six-week period. Thirteen sites were selected as winners of grants ranging from $50,000 to $118,000.

Little did we know then that this was the first example of using crowdsourcing in philanthropy.  Since 2006 was the pinnacle year of “American Idol,” it is not surprisingly the PIP competition was dubbed the “American Idol of (historic) preservation.” This partnership is still going strong, and just a few days ago, on May 13, we announced 13 new winners  in Washington, D.C., Maryland, and Virginia.  As the program has progressed (the competition has also been held in New Orleans, Chicagoland, Boston, Seattle, Saint Paul/Minneapolis, and New York) we have relied more and more on social media to promote the event and engage the public. For example, in San Francisco, the public was asked to cast their votes directly on the PIP website or in person at one of the kiosks located in select Peet’s Coffee & Tea outlets across the Bay area. Seven years later, in addition to online voting, the public can vote and share the news about the program via Facebook and Twitter, upload photos and videos to Instagram and YouTube, and check in via Foursquare.

Crowdsourcing is also being used to supplement or even replace some of the traditional research tools used in surveying historic buildings, sites, and landscapes. One example is the Austin Historic Survey Wiki, a partnership of the University of Texas at Austin Schools of Architecture  and Information, the City of Austin, and the Heritage Society of Austin. Information from earlier Austin historic surveys can be accessed and new information can be contributed by Wiki users to this survey database. Another significant historic survey that has enlisted the broader community in efforts to identify historic and cultural resources in the City of Los Angeles is, which uses the crowdsourcing platform MindMixer, named one of the top ten 2012 websites by Planetizen. complements the Los Angeles citywide Historic Resources Survey, launched in 2010. Using Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tools, allows the city to connect with underrepresented people in a way it hadn't been able to do before, and to direct the city’s professional survey teams to resources that might normally be overlooked.

Also in California, the Berkeley Historic Plaques Project uses crowdsourcing to enhance its existing traditional plaque program by creating e-plaques that exist only on its website. Project planners seek contributions to the e-plaque collection by encouraging the public to upload their own historic photos and videos.

In 1971, much like the photo documentary project sponsored by the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created DOCUMERICA in an effort to document the country’s environmental crisis. For the next five years nearly 70 photographers travelled across the country capturing threats to the environment, EPA activities, and everyday life in the 1970s. To celebrate 40-year anniversary of DOCUMERICA, the EPA launched a global photo competition which will be open through 2013, the State of the Environment Photo Project. This new effort includes Documerica Then and Now, which seeks to have photographers replicate the same scenes depicted in the original Documerica photographs.

The California Historical Society and history researchers at Stanford University’s Center for Spatial and Textual Analysis are using HistoryPin to celebrate the San Francisco Bay Area with an exhibit called “Year of the Bay.” HistoryPin is an online platform created to encourage conversation and collaborations around local histories across generations, cultures, and communities. For this experimental exhibit, the society is asking the public, instead of trained conservators, to “curate” the exhibit by contributing their own stories, photographs, videos, and audio recordings to the society’s new online collection of photos, paintings, and documents. In conjunction with the creation of this new online collection, the California Historical Society is holding an exhibit called "Curating the Bay: Crowdsourcing a New Environmenal History," showing many items from its rich archives. Through a kiosk at the Society, HistoryPin is directly helping the society and its visitors to digitize its collections and to capture additional stories, and maybe even memories, related to the exhibit.

Besides the above-mentioned Partners in Preservation initiative, the National Trust has also integrated crowdsourcing in other ways. One example is the I Love Texas Courthouses campaign, where, throughout the month of February, the public was invited to show their support for the preservation of the historic Texas courthouses (one of 32 National Treasures) by signing a group “love letter,” and submitting stories and photos of the courthouses.

Crowdsourcing allows individuals to harness the power of the crowd to turn their private preservation passions into a national preservation effort. In the UK, for example, Sam Roberts started a blog in 2007 devoted to ads painted on old buildings, also known as “ghost signs.” He recruited his family and friends to help collect photos and information on ghost signs in the UK and Ireland, which was soon followed by a Flickr group, which was used to post digital images of the signs. Just two years later he partnered with the History of Advertisement Trust, and this new partnership, Ghost Signs online archive, continues to grow based on the collective contributions of more than 600 photographers worldwide.

And finally, our work on the Preservation Leadership Blog requires crowdsourcing—your contributions. So if there is a topic or story you would like us to cover or research, please let us know in the comment section below or by emailing us directly at

#ForumReferenceDesk #ForumBenefit #NationalTreasure #TexasCourthouses

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