Bringing Research Home with Citizen History

By Special Contributor posted 05-25-2016 12:24


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 Holocaust history.

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 go.

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

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