Getting Help From a Few Thousand Friends

The New York Times photography blog Lens featured a good example of the power of crowdsourcing this past week.

Lens published a post about a World War II-era photo album owned by a New Jersey man who wanted help learning more about the album’s provenance. The 214 photographs (some of which you can see in this post), include amazing images of prisoners, Adolph Hitler, Berlin, Minsk, and more. The New York Times asked a few experts for their opinions, and then posed the question to the public in a joint effort with the German publication Spiegel Online.

Within a few hours, a historian from Hamburg, Germany had identified the photographer (Franz Krieger) and helped to solve this small modern mystery. You can read the full explanation on Lens here.

I was especially struck by the story because just one day earlier, the Times had published another article that foretold this success: “Upending Anonymity, These Days the Web Unmasks Everyone.”

That’s the beauty (and the horror, to some) of social media. Harnessing the knowledge, time, and power of the crowd can accomplish a lot in a relatively short period of time.

For public history institutions, this power of the crowd can turn an otherwise impossible task into a manageable goal.

The New York Public Library, for example, is using online volunteers to geocode historical maps to align with modern digital maps. For another project, NYPL is using the crowd to transcribe thousands of digitized historical restaurant menus.

The Center for History and New Media is using online volunteers to help transcribe 45,000 documents from the War Department.

The Center for History and New Media is testing out its new open-source crowdsourcing transcription tool, Scripto, on a project to transcribe the late eighteenth-century papers of the War Department. You can read more about their motivations here.

Is it worth the effort? To give you a sense of possibilities,‘s volunteers have transcribed 548 MILLION genealogical records since 2006.

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