Blog Post

DIY History?

DIY History?

The University of Iowa Libraries have recently launched a new project called DIY History—a project which asks the interested general public to participate in the process of transcribing some of their Special Collections holdings. OCR is a great technology but one which really works best with print, and so older, handwritten documents still need a human eye to help make them search engine accessible—not always a very difficult task, but a pretty time-consuming one.

I think the DIY History project is a great one on a number of levels. It opens up the practice of history, allowing people who aren't formally historians to "do" history, to see what it is that historians and archivists do; it allows us to engage with the general public; it allows us to overcome some of the limitations of technology and funding resources. I can also see it being very useful in the classroom—what better way to have students in a history class learn how to read primary sources in an analytical manner, seeing themes and contradictions and problems with the historical record as they go?

Have any of you worked on projects like this in the past, whether as organisers or contributers, or have you used them in the classroom? I'd be interested to know what you guys think about:

  • Usefulness in the classroom—what skills do students gain from working on DH projects like this?
  • Quality control issues and "good faith" revisions. (Some of these projects can be very accurate; how can we ensure that this is true of all of them?)
  • How to publicise the existence of projects like these, both to the general public and to other academics (there are projects like the Harry Ransom Center Fragments Project, which are aimed at harnessing the knowledge of a very wide range of specialists on medieval manuscripts and writings, for instance)
  • The role of the historian/archivist—who is the final arbiter and why/how?
  • Other issues that I'm forgetting here?


Thanks Yvone for this! The DIY project sounds great because of the way that it introduces students to primary documents while also getting them to transcribe for the library.  I do not know much about other projects like this, but I do have a related idea to add.

This week I went to a lecture by Dr. Luis von Ahn of Carnegie Mellon University.  An associate professor of computer science, von Ahn presented at the Provost Lecture Series at Duke University. While his presentation was primarily about Duolingo, he also discussed the use of captchas in transcribing online books. The idea is that everytime you decipher a captcha you are also helping to transcribe a letter that a computer can not read. These transcriptions are then used to digitize old books.  So, not quite the same as DIY, but definitely interesting!



Oh, thanks for the link to Duolingo! I've come across mention of how captchas can be used to OCR some old texts before, but I haven't seen a project quite like that one. It's interesting to think of projects like this which combine both self-interested (language acquistion) and selfless (transcription) elements in order to motivate people. I'd be very interested to see how it works out in the longterm--if it's a viable model that could attract more users in the longterm, or if it's something that people would move away from without longterm support.