Digital History: Crowdsourcing

In some ways I feel like the theme of this semester has been me trying to make sense of my really confusing thesis research. I’ve made a map of settlement locations in Philadelphia, designed a project to map social networks between the million people and institutions involved in the settlement movement in Philadelphia, and for this crowdsourcing assignment, I decided to dive into the sparsely-populated corner of Wikipedia devoted to the American settlement movement. Not so useful from a public history point of view (at least at this juncture), but what are ya gonna do.

“The seeing eye does not invent the landscape.”
Vida Dutton Scudder

I came across this quotation by social reformer Vida Scudder that I think illustrates the complications of historical interpretation. Reality and truth are a matter of perspective, and what looks red to me might look orange to you. This is a problem that all historians face, but one that really comes to the fore in collaborative ventures like crowdsourcing and Wikipedia.

I’ve had some experience in editing Wikipedia before, and I contributed to the pilot departmental wiki project initiated by Gary Scales last semester. In the interest of actually contributing to and expanding the public conversation on this very niche topic in a way that I doubt my actual thesis will achieve, I decided to see what was missing from Wikipedia articles. The key to this was also that I could add the information using source material I already have and which is sitting at arm’s length in my living room.

So, yes, my thesis research has been confusing for several reasons:

  1. My topic is somewhat passe in the history field, so most of the scholarship dates from before the 1980s (and, alas! was only published in a bunch of out-of-print books)
  2. There are a million people involved in the American settlement movement, all of whom seem to have corresponded and worked with each other, making it sometimes confusing who was responsible for what and when it happened
  3. Most of the people I’m writing about were women, who left a whole bunch of primary source material behind but whom haven’t been featured in very much secondary research (see also reason #1)

Not surprisingly, these issues have also been challenging for the folks authoring and editing Wikipedia articles on the American settlement movement. There just isn’t very much there. Philadelphia’s settlement movement in particular has almost no presence on Wikipedia with the exception of a section of later eugenicist Katherine B. Davis’ biography page (yikes).

NPG 1746; Octavia Hill by John Singer Sargent
Portrait of Octavia Hill by John Singer Sargent (1898), The National Portrait Gallery, London (used under CC)

The first decision I needed to make was what exactly I should add or edit, considering the sparsity of information currently available on Wikipedia. Most of the women reformers and the institutions I’m looking at do not have their own pages. Even powerful national organizations like the College Settlements Association exist only in brief references on other pages- so I decided to start there. Ultimately planning to create a College Settlements Association page, I edited information relating to its founders and establishment in the articles for Vida Scudder, Octavia Hill, and Denison House of Boston. I don’t have the time to create and fully source a brand new page right now, but now that I know the state of this topic on Wikipedia, I think that this will be an ongoing project.

The lack of secondary research is a serious problem in adding and editing Wikipedia articles for this topic. Because Wikipedia is a tertiary source, they strongly discourage the usage of original research in the creation of articles. I was able to add details like dates and names from some of the monographs I have. But for the most point what I have at this point on these people is original primary research- so it seems like to make Wikipedia happy, I’ll first need to publish my primary research findings in order to create a secondary source that I can then source in an article- but even then, it’s not ideal to base an article on just one secondary source! This is a real barrier to the dissemination of knowledge about less “popular” topics on Wikipedia, as we had previously discussed in class.

On a positive note, though, I was very excited to see that a user thanked me for some of my edits- An auspicious beginning to my Wikipedia experiment! I hope that adding my (sourced) perspective will contribute to a more colorful and nuanced rendering of the “landscape” of this subject online.

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