Crowdsourcing: writing history on the Internet | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 03.02.2012
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Crowdsourcing: writing history on the Internet

Internet users have been generating content on social networks for a long time. Now, archives and libraries are tapping into that resource to fill information gaps.

A soldier from World War I

A Great War memory

"I really only wanted to turn this in - I got it from my grandfather," said an older man holding a book of soldiers' songs from World War II in his hand. He was attending an event promoting the Europeana Collections 1914-1918 project held last month in Amberg, near Nuremberg.

Project team members, including scientists, librarians and military historians, spoke with the people who had brought along their memories of World War I - love letters, postcards and photographs - to make them available to a wider audience.

Those "artifacts" will flow into the Europeana Collections 1914-1918, part of the larger Europeana project, which is an effort to compile Europe's digital "memory." It's a library, museum and archive with headquarters in The Hague, which makes more than 15 million items - texts, audio files, maps, paintings and other digitized images - accessible at

The strength of numbers

A man points to a person in picture while speaking

Listening to those memories is part of the collecting process

Crowdsourcing has been standard at Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms from the get-go. Now, libraries and historians have started tapping into user-generated content to help fill history "books," which these days are more likely to be online portals.

And the trend is on the rise, said Britta Woldering of the German National Library, which is coordinating the Europeana Collections 1914-1918 project for Germany. "Our experience with crowdsourcing is really positive," she said.

Professional historians may be skeptical at first when it comes to amateurs providing historical information, but there's a lot of substance to what they are providing, Woldering noted.

The promotional events for the Europeana Collections 1914-1918 in Germany, some of which started last year in other cities when the project kicked off, were places where people could share memories. People who attended met with military historians, for instance, who were interested in their fathers' and grandfathers' war experiences.

Anyone who wants to participate can plunder dust-covered boxes in their attic which may contain information about World War I, digitize it and upload it onto the project portal until 2014 - the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

Around the globe

Photographer with laptop and camera

Photographers help out with digitizing relics

Other European countries are likewise involved in the undertaking, which is modeled after the Great War Projected initiated by England's University of Oxford in 2008.

Such crowdsourcing projects are popular around the globe. The US Library of Congress in Washington, DC has long been gathering historical photographs via the photography platform Flickr. "Gedächtnis der Nation" (Memory of the Nation) is a solely German project, which in 2011 saw a team from public broadcaster ZDF travel in a bus converted into a TV studio, conducting interviews with people around the country about events from before Word War I until the present.

High-quality videos edited from the footage are available on YouTube, where users are also encouraged to contribute their own material after interviewing someone with an intriguing story about German history. Plans are in the works for another "Memory of the Nation" run this year.

Filling the gap

But libraries are already bursting at the seams with history books, so what's the point of gallery even more information? Jens Prellwitz, who represents the Berlin State Library in the Europeana 1914-1918 project and is a specialist on the history of the World Wars, said that information gathered through crowdsourcing has filled a scientific gap.

"The documents we have received have helped a part of research to develop in the past few years that focuses less on the political and military complexities of World War I, and more on the social and cultural implications," he explained.

Screenshot from the Europeana Internet portal

Europeana takes a broad view of collecting digitized artifacts on the Internet

How did a lowly soldier experience the horror of being in trenches during the Great War? What were the implications of having fewer men available in the work force? What did people think about women taking on "men's" jobs on the home front? These are the kinds of questions best answered by the people who were there.

Virtual links

The purpose of all these crowdsourcing projects, however, isn't simply to collect new material, but also to link up existing data via the Internet.

That's the case with Judaica Europeana, which has seen 10 partners from around the globe contribute their collections - partially unknown to the public until then - to the network. Participants include the Alliance Israélite in Paris, London's Jewish Museum and Frankfurt's Universitätsbibliothek.

"The oldest piece in the collection is a find from third-century Greece," noted Rachel Heuberger, general coordinator of the network. "It demonstrates that Jews settled there after the destruction of the Jewish state by the Romans."

One of the next projects to go live online is a virtual map of Frankfurt, Heuberger said, since the city was for many centuries one of the most important hubs for Jewish life in Germany. Visitors to the city can then plan tours to encompass these historical sites.

Author: Birgit Görtz / als
Editor: Kate Bowen

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