Crowdsourcing Oral Histories: A New Approach to Public History and Gathering Humanities Data
In this spring lectures series talk, I will discuss recent interventions made by The 1947 Partition Archive in documenting a significant yet much-silenced moment in history through the invention of crowdsourcing techniques that exploit modern communications technologies. I will demonstrate how our platform has enabled documentation of the 1947 Partition of India and Pakistan at a global scale in a short amount of time, while democratizing the preservation of historical memory.
The year 1947 marked the end of the British rule in South Asia, and the births of two new nations, India and Pakistan. Independence entailed partitioning the provinces of Bengal and Punjab in within British India. The Partition led to overnight loss of homes (at least 14 million), massive outbreak of sectarian and sexual violences in local communities, and deaths of common civilians (estimated at over 1 million) across both sides of the India-Pakistan border. Recent scholars of Partition studies as well as South Asian cultural practitioners have compared the Partition to the Jewish Holocaust in Europe. Yet, prior to the present effort, there existed not a single memorial or public archive for preserving the witness memories of the Partition. While pioneering work inspired by witness narratives has informed the field of Partition Studies (Butalia, Menon et al), there was, prior to this effort, no publicly accessible archive on oral histories of Partition, and no effort to record across the subcontinent in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh at the scale at which The 1947 Partition Archive is doing.
The 1947 Partition Archive’s invention of a crowdsourcing protocol for recording and digitally preserving the witness testimonies (on video and occasionally audio) enables the representation of voices from diverse ethnic, religious, and economic communities in the South Asian region and diasporas. This unique and original platform entails offering free online oral history workshops twice a month to teach ‘Citizen Historian’ volunteers anywhere in the world, the techniques for recording oral histories specifically of Partition witnesses. The crowdsourcing process is constantly evolving through A/B testing and techniques similar to those employed by commercial service applications such as Uber and AirBnB. For areas where technological challenges prohibit the success of crowdsourcing, research scholars from local communities in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are offered a modest scholarship stipend to record witness interviews. In effect, The 1947 Partition Archive is bringing witness oral histories to the forefront of South Asia’s public memory. In the process, the platform is not only bringing previously undocumented histories to the fore, but also enabling widespread healing of communities impacted by the collective trauma of the Partition. The 1947 Partition Archive’s choice of a digital medium to preserve oral histories is creating a pedagogical resource for scholars working in a number of fields (e.g. Partition studies, trauma studies, memory studies, diaspora studies, digital humanities, oral history, subaltern histories, and South Asian studies) as well as for post-Partition generations in South Asia and the diasporas. The use of crowdsourcing ensures voices from diverse ethnic, socioeconomic, religious and political backgrounds have access to and representation in the archive.
Guneeta Singh Bhalla is founder of The 1947 Partition Archive. Previously, she was an experimental condensed matter physicist who completed her tenure as a post-doctoral researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Department of Physics at the University of California at Berkeley. She devised experiments to probe quantum confinement at interfaces that include oxide heterostructures and domain walls in multiferroics. After a 2008 visit to the oral testimony archives at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial she was inspired and began interviewing Partition witnesses in 2009. It was a deeply enriching experience and she wanted to share it with everyone. She was also troubled with the realization that the generation of eye witnesses was nearly gone and taking their stories with them. This led to the concept of crowdsourcing oral histories of Partition, thereby engaging the public in recording the people’s history of the world’s largest mass human displacement. She gathered a team and began recording oral histories in 2010. In 2011 The 1947 Partition Archive was born. She has personally interviewed over 100 of the 5,300 Partition witnesses interviewed by The 1947 Partition Archive, rallied volunteers from all walks of life and built the grassroots foundations of the largest repository on Partition witness accounts. In 1947 her father’s family migrated from Lahore to Amritsar on August 14.