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Crowdsourcing a Slice of History
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Crowdsourcing a Slice of History

Ever wanted to dine like your favorite Downton Abbey character? A crowdsourcing initiative by the University of Iowa is looking to help people find dinner ideas from the 1600s through the 1960s by asking volunteers to transcribe hand-written recipes.

The initiative, dubbed DIY History, was launched after the success of the university’s previous crowdsourcing project, which asked users to transcribe texts for the Civil War’s sesquicentennial. DIY History also includes diaries and letters of prominent Iowans, among other documents; the collection's cookbooks come from both America and England.

Put together, the crowdsourcing initiatives have thus far resulted in nearly 17,000 transcribed pages, unlocking delicious-sounding treats like Jelly Cookies, Ham Cakes, and Steamed Carrot Pudding (well, perhaps not that last one).

The way DIY History works is relatively simple: users can either enter text for handwritten pages, correct and verify already transcribed text, or tag historic Flickr photos to connect them with certain time periods or events.

The university also created a discussion forum for the campaign. There, users can exchange information about archaic terms, for example, or highlight interesting findings

While this may not be the sexiest application of crowdsourcing, initiatives like this are important for preserving our history, as well as making it more accessible. Who knows what secrets these texts may hold, and the prospect of helping find a missing piece of a national puzzle may be enough to attract dedicated volunteers. (Citizen scientists, after all, helped locate a new planet, so why can't citizen historians also make a contribution?)

It will be interesting to see whether more libraries and universities turn to crowdsourcing in order to digitize their records – a positively modern treatment for what may now feel like ancient texts.

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