By Elissa Frankle
History is messy. History is incomplete. History benefits from many
eyes and perspectives. We know all of this, but as sites of public
history, we can be slow to admit that our visitors have a lot to add,
that we have so much more to learn, and that citizens all across the
country can help us tell the story.
Enter citizen history! This burgeoning methodology allows a historic
site to say “We think the answers we don’t yet have might be out there
somewhere, and we’d like you to help us find them.” At the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
in Washington, DC, we’re a few months into a two-year citizen history
project called History Unfolded. The project invites people from around
the United States (anyone!) to search the archives of their local
newspapers to find and share articles about 20 different events in
|History Unfolded event participants research archival newspapers using the mobile version of the site.| Credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Citizen history is nothing new at the Holocaust Museum. (And we’re not the only ones doing it! Check out Ford’s Theatre’s Remembering Lincoln project and Mia Ridge’s work
for more examples.) Our exploration began several years ago with a
question: Could students today use our databases to discover what
happened to children in the Lodz Ghetto? The resulting Children of the
Lodz Ghetto Memorial Research Project would run in perpetual beta for
seven years. In that time we learned a lot about what participants need
and what they are willing to do, and we were able to develop best
practices in community management. As the museum was gearing up for our
new initiative on what Americans knew about the Holocaust and how they
reacted to it, we found enough interest in citizen history to spend six
months piloting different formats, learning about participant needs, and
discovering which projects might prove viable.
History Unfolded represents an excellent citizen history project because:
It seeks to answer a real historical research question.
A lot of work has been done on national newspapers: scholars have thoroughly studied The New York Times’
coverage of the Holocaust. But nobody had ever done a systematic study
of Holocaust coverage in smaller local, regional, ethnic, and
non-English-language papers throughout the United States, and thus there
had been no comprehensive scholarship regarding what Americans were
able to learn from their local papers. By contributing research to the
History Unfolded database, participants are fleshing out our
understanding of what Americans knew and when.
|History Unfolded event participants at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, DC, research archival newspaper articles for the Citizen History Project. | Photo credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
The work of citizen historians is vital to the success of the project.
While many newspapers are available in online databases, many more
are only accessible to library card holders in certain jurisdictions,
and still others are only available physically on microfilm. As a
result, the project can only succeed with participation from people in
every state leveraging their access to places where museum staff cannot
The project incorporates a strong educational component as well as a commitment to clean data.
One of the distinctions between citizen history and crowdsourcing is
the focus of the project. In a crowdsourcing project, the institution
focuses on the collection of data; in citizen history we value the
contract between the institution and the participant as well. The
participant is afforded an intentional, immersive learning experience
while simultaneously assisting in the institution’s research. One of the
History Unfolded learning goals came out of user experience (UX)
research early in the project, when Melanie Martin, our UX designer,
discovered that many high school students did not know how to read or
parse a historic newspaper. She created a tutorial called “How to Read
Old Newspapers,” which explains the parts of a newspaper and the purpose
of each part in research. Additionally, we pair each of the events we
ask participants to research with an in-depth module establishing that
event’s context and importance in history.
|Screenshot from the History Unfolded site. | Credit: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
So what are the implications for your historic site and historic
preservation? Your community can be part of telling your stories too.
History is constantly unfolding and being rediscovered, as more
information becomes available and more perspectives come to light. We’ve
heard from teachers using History Unfolded in their classrooms that
researching a world-historical event in local papers makes the
Holocaust, which students had previously experienced as an ocean and
generations away, suddenly very present and close to home. What stories
are still waiting to be told about your historic site and community? How
can you partner with other local repositories of history—as well as
schools, universities, libraries, or lifelong learners—and empower them
to unlock history? Most importantly, what are you curious about? Citizen
history lives at the intersection of true historical curiosity and
learner excitement. Find the space where you can bring the two together.
Elissa Frankle is the digital projects coordinator for the Levine
Institute for Holocaust Education at the United States Holocaust
Memorial Museum. To find out more about or take part in the History
Unfolded project, visit newspapers.ushmm.org.
#HistoricSites #PreservationTools #documentation #Technology