Historians Ask the Public to Help Organize the Past

Historians Ask the Public to Help Organize the Past

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On November 8, 1800, fire ravaged the federal War Office, in Washington. The agency’s files went up in smoke, leaving a gaping hole in the nation’s historical rec­ord. “The most important window into the early republic had basically been boarded up,” says Christopher H. Hamner, a military historian at George Mason University.

Not anymore. Through years of shoe-leather detective work, scholars have recreated much of the archive by tracking down copies of nearly 45,000 documents. But now they face another challenge: transcribing them from digital images. Their solution is to enlist the public to help, free. The experiment, run by George Mason’s Center for History and New Media, tests an increasingly important question: How will the Wikipedia model of open participation change humanities scholarship?

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