Crowdsourcing Anabaptist history?

I’m teaching two digitally focused courses this semester at West Chester University, Introduction to Digital Humanities and the upper level history election, Digital History. In both courses, my students spend a lot of time looking at existing digital projects and learning how to analyze and evaluate them, not unlike a book review. This is a great opportunity not just for my students—but for me—because I get to learn about cool digital projects and be inspired by them.

One of my favorite genres of digital projects is crowdsourced public history, in which public users—the people out there on the internet—contribute their knowledge, skills, and labor to a greater understanding of history.

The Mennonite Church Archive already participates in a crowdsourced project by sharing some of its photographs on Flickr Commons, the wing of the Yahoo-owned photo sharing service through which cultural heritage institutions share copyright-free images, allowing users to add tags to photographs or identify individuals pictured. Wouldn’t all these great photographs of 1960s VSers and “Bean Blossom Wayfarers” be even better if we knew who was in them? As a frequent student of the material culture of the Anabaptist traditions, these photographs are an amazing resource for tracking changes of fashion among church members (note when the head coverings come off), analyze the introduction of cultural objects like musical instruments, and study other visual elements of the cultural tradition.


Figure 1. First group of Mennonite Volunteers (VSers) to serve in Rocky Ford, Colo. at the Pioneers Memorial Hospital. They gather informally for a period of relaxation and sharing after a hard day at the Hospital. 1965. Mennonite Board of Missions Photograph Collection from Rocky Ford and Colorado from 1961-65. IV-10-7.2 Box 3 Folder 18, Photo #8. Mennonite Church USA Archives -Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana.


Figure 2. Bean Blossom Wayfarers. Mennonite Board of Missions Photographs. IV-10-7.2. Box 7, Folder 3, Photo 9. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana.

Other successful crowdsourced humanities projects include those that let volunteers transcribe primary sources, such as handwritten nineteenth-century diaries and letters, menus, and all sorts of government documents. These work in a twofold way: first, volunteers interested in these historical materials provide labor to assist cultural heritage organizations in the essential process of making their documents machine-readable, and thus searchable through databases and search engines. Second, the institutions gain engaged community members who are using and thinking about their archival materials.

Another type of crowdsourced project asks contributors to share their knowledge and stories in order to add to a body of knowledge and cultural heritage. Wikipedia may be the best-known example, with its volunteer force of editors who continually work to create and improve encyclopedia entries. Public history projects have also captured the stories of those affected by Hurricane Katrina, crowdsourced location-based media by pinning it to a world map, or harvested stories of quilts (a personal favorite of Anabaptist Historian’s resident quilt expert).

So, what does this mean for Anabaptist historians? How can the traditional venues of both religious and cultural history harness the power of the crowd? In some ways, Anabaptist genealogists have long been engaged in crowdsourcing, contributing their knowledge of extensive family trees and long-lost details harvested from cemetery headstones or European church record books. The Swiss Anabaptist Genealogy Association’s extensive databases attest to this. It also demonstrates the enthusiasm of the community interested in Anabaptist history. Those same community experts could lend a hand by identifying and tagging photographs on Flickr, transcribing handwritten documents hidden in archives, and recording stories about their quilts. The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO)’s community portal could become a real community portal where participants could suggest new articles and additions to existing ones, rather than a blank page. What about a digital project that allows Pax Program participants to upload their stories of doing voluntary service during the Vietnam War or Mennonite Central Committee volunteers to share accounts of their service?

These ideas all have a low barrier to entry in terms of the technology and cost required for digital history projects. But all of them require cultivating an enthusiastic community of participants. No digital humanities project can survive on the motto of “if you build it they will come.” But the enormous benefit of an engaged community ensures not just the longevity of a digital project, but a sustained commitment from an active public who wants to interact with an institution’s collections.