Citizen Humanities Comes of Age: Crowdsourcing for the Humanities in the 21st Century Event Summary



The ancCOi1CjOWoAA81jhient Roman Republic was a state and a society of its citizens. There, the term ‘citizen’ carried a number of assumptions about those holding the title: assumptions of participation, individual investment in something bigger, of involvement, the protection of rights, the upholding of common values, and the discharge of responsibilities to others. But the concept of citizenship also excluded large swathes of the community – most non-natives, women, slaves, children and so on. The term is scarcely less loaded today. So where does the term ‘Citizen’ sit in the landscapes of Citizen Science and Citizen Humanities?


In the last ten years, crowdsourcing in academic humanities research has gone from an experimental and niche activity to one that raises fundamental questions about the relationship between scholarship and the public sphere – of citizen scholars. These are questions which are magnified and amplified by the ubiquity of digital culture – which in turn has changed the shape of society in that same ten year period. To explore some of these questions, the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s College London and Stanford University’s Centre for Electronic Spatial and Textual Analysis (CESTA), two institutions heavily involved in this area, recently came together to organize a two day symposium in London in September, entitled ‘Citizen Humanities Comes of Age: Crowdsourcing for the Humanities in the 21st Century’, at King’s. This event brought together 11 papers from a range of distinguished speakers to give presentations on the history (and prehistory) of humanities crowdsourcing, current applications and more general reflections. This post seeks to bring together some of the main threads that emerged.


Citizen Humanities is by definition concerned with human heritage. Several of the presentations and discussions noted that humanities, especially those that deal with Cultural Heritage, draw on long traditions of volunteerism, a subject on which The Bronze Age Index digitization project at the British Museum described by Jennifer Wexler, and the ‘Telecrofting’ project in Simon Tanner’s presentation, are both enterprises that long preceded our current conception of the digital society. The problems – including those of the ethical responsibilities of project organizers – in relation to relatively small groups of contributors of which individuals contribute disproportionately large quantities of time and/or effort, was discussed by Anne Alexander, who highlighted the risks of ‘neoliberal management models’. This ethical aspect was highlighted also by Alexandra Eveleigh, who stressed that the implicit focus on ‘super-contributors’ could in fact promote exclusivity and elitism. There was a general agreement that the collaborative models that are taken for granted within academia – with their rigour, very high levels of trust and the certainty of censure from the community if they are broken – could in fact exclude large sections of society from participation, who might nonetheless have something to offer. Victoria Van Hyning captured this in a tweet reflecting on Eveleigh’s paper: “Collaborative model can be authoritarian & lead to cliquishness. Moderation can be policing instead of cultivating”. At the end of the first day, Richard Marciano gave a keynote which reflected on his work on crowdsourcing and inequality/social division. This accentuated very clearly the dangers of assuming uniform public engagement with crowdsourcing, or any other kind of endeavour – those who are excluded for any reason are, by definition, not visible in the community being sourced, or in any outputs, credits or rewards.  The questions he ultimately explored were how to make humans part of of the big data challenge and when and how to automate and weave humans into automated processes.


Van Hyning herself, representing the Zooniverse project – one of the early flagships of academic crowdsourcing – and Cheli Cresswell of Oxford, both forged connections to the roots of Citizen Humanities in Citizen Science. Both of these presentations stressed established and emerging network technologies as drivers of scale in citizen participation. These crucial tools are changing the way researchers can ask consistent questions of vast corpora of data; and provide a way into what Cresswell described as ‘digitally-mediated, big-data driven’ citizen science projects. By seeing such mediation as an model of participation, it is possible to trace it as something that has evolved from the kinds of non-digital participatory production of intellectual capital described by Tanner and Wexler.


The seminar also dwelt on the importance of real-world local knowledge in what might be termed ‘community sourcing’; and of the related significance of real-world places. The concepts of place and community are historically indivisible, and this connection comes through in some of the most successful ‘community-sourcing’ activities. Carenza Lewis’s report on the Power to the Pits project described the development of amateur research teams within local communities, and the kinds of knowledge they can bring to archaeological field investigation, which is inherently tied to place.  Similarly, Breandán Knowlton’s paper on the Historypin’s Year of the Bay project described the community-driven collection of photographs of the San Francisco Bay area, and stressed the importance of local knowledge in augmenting this information. The same kind of issue was described by Andy Bevan is his paper on the MicroPasts project which,  in addition to the transcription activities described by Wexler, also deals with the community-sourced creation of 3D objects in the British Museum collections using photogrammetry. As many commentators have noted, museum space and location are critical to the curation and presentation of their collections; and in this project we see a different kind of relationship between real-world location and the participating public. Within the ethical, critical and technological frameworks highlighted by the other presentations, this underscores the fact that spatial data and the social construction of place is of primary importance in what we are coming to understand as ‘the Citizen Humanities’.


We concluded that simply deploying technology, or putting content ‘out there’ with a tool (or set of tools) risks not only failing to meet the expectations of the (institutionally-based) researchers or curators, but of actively reinforcing the kinds of barriers that the best projects in ‘Citizen Science’ have succeeded in overcoming. As Mia Ridge stated in her presentation on ‘Choosy crowds’ – it is never just about technology; and this is the whole basis of the typology described by Mark Hedges. The models of participation discussed at the symposium could not be further removed from the notion or the application of the term famously coined by Jeff Howe in 2006. Rather the very term ‘citizen humanities’, like ‘citizen science’ has connotations of investment, participation and belonging – or rather choosing to belong.


This post is a collective effort of the speakers and organizers: Stuart Dunn, Mark Hedges, Gabriel Wolfenstein, Zephyr Frank, RIchard Marciano, Simon Tanner, Jennifer Wexler, Andrew Bevan, Chiara Bonacchi, Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Carenza Lewis, Anne Alexander, Breandán Knowlton, Cheli Cresswell, Alexandra Eveleigh, and Mia Ridge.

Image: Cheli Cresswell