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New Forms of Cultural Engagement

Crowd-sourcing is the application of democratic principles to content and decision-making, from the design of cars and sneakers, to selecting winning performances (à la American Idol). While its implementation in the arts may send shivers down many aesthetic spines (particularly in criticism, where the most votes means the best painting, musical composition, novel, etc.), the practice opens an important debate about new forms of talent and cultural engagement.

A new instance of crowd-sourcing widens this discussion still further: for the last 50 years, the University of London has been transcribing the papers of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, publishing 27 volumes. More than half of his output remains to be processed. Beginning last fall, the editors invited anyone with time and interest to join the team. In four months, more than 300 people have signed on and have since produced over 400 transcripts. Here, too, there are shudders. Scholars working on other archives such as the Lincoln papers, who tried similar efforts, point to error-laden results simply not worth the time.

But think about this as more than scholarship- could libraries, archives, or museums use crowd-sourced projects as a way to develop a devoted, informed membership? Suppose every American history or humanities class in New York City (or Houston, or Anchorage) took on one such project – each student learning an era well enough to infer the handwritten words, the habits of scholarship, and a deep appreciation for those institutions that save the record of our past thoughts, wishes, and hopes. Research at WolfBrown confirms that people who played an instrument are the most likely to be concert-goers- in the same way, could transcription or other simple forms of conservation lead to life-long engagement?


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