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One of the purposes of this blog is to raise awareness of Digital Harlem and draw visitors to the site. When we created the site and the blog, I unreflectively adopted the adage ‘if you build it, they will come,’ expecting that simply being online would draw an audience.  Perhaps that was once the case, but it is not any longer, as the scale of the Internet dwarfs any project and swamps search engines — even a search for “Harlem 1920s” produces 2,510,000 results.  I have come to realize that what I need to do to help people find both the site and the blog is actively engage with other digital history sites, to participate in what has been labelled crowdsourcing.  (It is revealing of what scholars think they can gain from the Internet that I’m often asked about crowdsourcing as a way of adding material to Digital Harlem, but never about contributing knowledge from the project to other sites).  The most prominent example of crowdsourcing, and the site that dominates search results, is Wikipedia.

Recently, other digital scholars have begun to discuss engaging with this online encyclopedia. Eric Meyer, in the Joint Information Systems Committee report on the usage of digital resources published last year, suggested including appropriate links in Wikipedia as a way to increase discovery of digital projects. University of Houston librarians reported earlier in 2011 on a project to ‘evangelize’ the content of their digital library on Wikipedia by uploading images and inserting them into appropriate articles. Engaging with Wikipedia is relatively straightforward for libraries and archives with images and other media they are prepared to put into the public domain. For digital humanities projects that involve something more than digitization, however, the task is more complex, requiring editing Wikipedia entries. The Writing History in the Digital Age collection to which I recently contributed includes several insightful chapters on writing for Wikipedia. But much of the discussion has focused on contributions by students, not scholars. One reason is that an author cannot straightforwardly claim credit for a contribution in the ways to which academics are accustomed. It is also the case that historians feel they have little meaningful to gain from engaging with Wikipedia. However true that might be for some scholars, it is not the case for those creating digital history.

The 5 Pillars (fundamental principles) of Wikipedia

Making a contribution to an entry that connects it to a digital history project is not straightforward.  Most fundamentally, where sites like Digital Harlem place a premium on providing access to primary sources, Wikipedia guidelines suggest limited use of such material – the governing principle is that  “articles should be based on reliable, published secondary sources….A primary source may only be used on Wikipedia to make straightforward, descriptive statements that any educated person, with access to the source but without specialist knowledge, will be able to verify are supported by the source.”[1]  At the same time, in a particular problem for Digital Harlem, the policy against including copyrighted material prevents the inclusion of screenshots of maps from the site in Wikipedia entries as Google Maps is copyrighted. Both those disconnects between Digital Harlem and Wikipedia’s approach can be mediated by this blog. Wikipedia‘s guidelines do state that blogs “are largely not acceptable as sources,” as they are self-published. Moreover, citing yourself is identified as a potential conflict of interest. However, the guidelines allow some leeway to those editing in an area in which they have academic expertise, for who it is the case that, “Using material you yourself have written or published is allowed within reason, but only if it is relevant and conforms to the content policies. Excessive self-citation is strongly discouraged.” In addition, it is possible for me to edit entries using the Digital Harlem Blog as a source on the basis of the exception for “Self-published expert sources…produced by an established expert on the topic of the article whose work in the relevant field has previously been published by reliable third-party publications.” To date, while I have been queried about using this blog as a source, I have not been challenged nor have my contributions been removed, in large part because the editors I’ve encountered have been appreciative of my willingness to contribute my expertise, which is not always the case. [2]

Wikipedia entry on Harlem

The remaining issue is identifying articles to edit that connect a project to Wikipedia. There is a single Wikipedia entry on Harlem, of which one section is devoted to the history of the neighborhood, with an organization that confusing spreads historical content across the historical and thematic sections.  My contributions on everyday life in the 1920s could have gone in a section on the neighborhood as a ‘center of black life,’ or one on the 1920s focused on the Harlem Renaissance and Prohibition, ending up in the later after discussions with the editors most involved with the entry.  I’m still trying to work out how to edit the sections on culture, crime and politics to connect them to Digital Harlem; hopefully other editors will undertake a reorganization of the entry that will make that task easier.

Wikipedia entries related to 1920s Harlem (click to enlarge)

With much of what is dealt with in Digital Harlem not easily incorporated into the Harlem entry, I have had to identify a variety of narrower topics.  To date, I have found twenty-nine entries related to 1920s Harlem, of which I have edited eight. The challenge of fitting in with an entry’s existing organization and approach is exacerbated in the case of such topics, which attract less attention from editors and consequently generally have so many pieces missing that there is no obvious place for what I had to contribute.  One example is numbers gambling, which has an entry so confusing in its organization and content that it requires a major rewrite to accommodate the material in this blog — which for the moment would take more time than I have to give this endeavour.

I’m obviously still in the early days of crowdsourcing with Digital Harlem, so it is still too soon to assess its impact on either Wikipedia or in bringing traffic to this blog and the site. In the later case, just over 200 visitors to the blog have been referred by Wikipedia in the last 3 months, almost 1/10 of the total who have been referred by links, but only about 3% of all the visitors in that time.  Those numbers are not particularly significant, but they come from only a small proportion of the entries to which this project has something to contribute, and they don’t measure how many people have read the content from Digital Harlem that I have contributed to Wikipedia – the Harlem entry alone has been viewed over 48,000 times in just the last 30 days.


[1] There is also a guideline for the use of primary sources that concerns how much of a source can be included. The discussion pages reveal that the present guidelines suggestion not including the full-text of primary sources only dates from 2009 and replaced a stronger position: “Do not include copies of primary sources (specifically: text, maps, artworks and other useful images) in Wikipedia.”  For the debate over this rule, see the archived discussion.

[2] Andy Guess, “Making Wikis Work for Scholars,” Inside Higher Ed (April 28, 2008); Martha Saxton, J. Scott Payne, Leah Cerf, and Melissa Greenberg. “Wikipedia and Women’s History: A Classroom Experience,” in Jack Dougherty and Kristen Nawrotzki, eds, Writing History in the Digital Age, under contract with the University of Michigan Press, Web-book edition, Trinity College (CT), Fall 2011

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Our article “Harlem in Black and White: Mapping Race and Place in the 1920s,” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Urban History.  It should appear at the end of 2012.  The abstract reads:

In the 1920s, as Harlem emerged as the largest black city in the world, a significant white presence remained in the neighborhood.  Whites not only frequented nightlife, they owned and operated the vast majority of Harlem’s businesses, policed its streets, staffed its schools and hospital, drove its public transport and most of the vehicles travelling its streets, delivered goods, collected rent and insurance payments, and patronized sporting events. Scholars have only made briefly mention of this presence and its impact on everyday life, portraying race relations as harmonious and inconsequential in a neighborhood represented as a segregated refuge from whites.  Drawing on black newspapers and legal records, and using the Digital Harlem site to map and visualize that evidence of the white presence, reveals a very different picture, of interracial encounters that often led to conflict, and of Harlem as a place of contestation, negotiation, resistance, and accommodation.

The map below captures part of the white presence in Harlem, locating the institutions staffed by whites, some of the posts patrolled by police, and the routes traveled by the buses and streetcars driven by whites.  The streets serviced by public transport also featured the neighborhood’s businesses, most staffed as well as owned by whites.  Other maps relating to the white presence in Harlem are already on the blog, in posts on traffic accidents, street vendors, and ice dealers.

Whites in Harlem (Bus routes, Streetcar Routes and Police Patrols appear in the list of Event Types)

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An article about Digital Harlem, “Putting Harlem on the Map,” is part of Writing History in the Digital Age, a collection of articles being developed through open peer review.  The editors solicited contributions addressing these questions: Has the digital revolution transformed how we write about the past — or not? Have new technologies changed our essential work-craft as scholars, and the ways in which we think, teach, author, and publish? Does the digital age have broader implications for individual writing processes, or for the historical profession at large?

“Putting Harlem on the Map” discusses how Digital Harlem changed how I thought about and understood the neighborhood in the 1920s.  You can post feedback on the article until November 14 by following this link

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Our article, “The Black Eagle of Harlem,” has appeared in Beyond Blackface: African Americans and the Creation of American Popular Culture, 1890-1930, a collection edited by Fitz Brundage and published by the University of North Carolina Press.

The article is a study of Hubert Julian, the black aviator, parachutist and celebrity, considering him as a product of Harlem and the modernity of the 1920s and 1930s.  Julian launched himself into prominence with two parachute jumps over Harlem in 1923 and became a fixture flying over funerals and parades.  He also made an ill-fated effort to fly across the Atlantic in 1924, drawing a crowd of around 20,000 to watch him takeoff from the Harlem River, on a flight that lasted only a few moments before the plane crashed into Flushing Bay.  Successful or not, Julian captivated Harlem as a black exponent of the quintessentially modern marvel of flight.

But Julian’s style proved as fascinating as any of his accomplishments.  He donned clothing ranging from uniforms to the morning dress of an English gentleman, and promoted himself as a spectacle that drew the attention of the black, and on occasion, white press.  He attached himself to Marcus Garvey’s UNIA, and later, Father Divine, had various roles in Haile Selassie’s Ethiopia, and even co- produced one of Oscar Micheaux’s films.  “On the move, on the make,” Hubert Julian embodied the spirit of the 1920s.

For more, see the post “Hubert Julian in Harlem”

Review of Beyond Blackface: Journal of American History (2013) 99 (4): 1267-1268.

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Marcy Sacks, Associate Professor of History at Albion College, and author of Before Harlem: The Black Experience in New York City Before WW1, reviews Playing the Numbers in the June 2011 issue of the Journal of American History

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Our article “Disorderly Houses: Residences, Privacy and the Surveillance of Sexuality in 1920s Harlem” has been accepted for publication in the Journal of the History of Sexuality. It will appear in 2012/2013.

The article argues that despite overcrowding, Harlem’s residences  provided privacy, due to the regular, extended absence of residents at work, the willingness of those not bound by familial ties to look the other way, the ability to pass as married or as heterosexual, and the limited surveillance conducted by public and private authorities.  Residents used that privacy not simply for the marital sexuality that reformers promoted, but for homosexual, extramarital and premarital sexual activity, ranging from casual relationships to informal unions, and to operate venues that commodified privacy and gave others space for the same kinds of sexual expression.

There are several maps already posted on this blog that are related to the article’s arguments.  The police focus on street prostitution rather than what happened inside residences is evident in the map of prostitution arrests.  Divorce raids, which offer a glimpse of the privacy that unmarried couples could obtain in residences, are mapped in this post.  The night life venues that residents operated in their homes for a black clientele, away from the nightclubs and speakeasies frequented by whites, can be found on the map of Harlem’s nightlife.

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Our article, “This Harlem Life: Black Families and Everyday Life in the 1920s and 1930s,” has now been published in the Journal of Social History, in the Fall 2010 issue.  <update, 19 July 2011: as six months have elapsed since its publication, I can now provide a copy here>.  I’ve already posted maps and discussions of the lives of the five men who feature in the article: Morgan Thompson, Perry Brown, Fuller Long, Frank Hamilton and Roger Walker.

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