Citizen History – so close or too far? Current results from Citizen History and the Problems of Creating Participatory Projects

Eric Schmalz, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, USA, Michael Haley Goldman, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, USA

Abstract

Are citizen history projects effective at promoting learning, increasing motivation, and assisting institutions with their collections goals? What are the institutional and practical problems that hold more projects back? New formal evaluation data suggests that many of the educational and institutional goals can be achieved by these projects. Yet, barriers still limit their adoption. This paper will examine the documented results possible for citizen history projects and the practical factors that could help small and large institutions create their own participatory projects.

Keywords: citizen history, crowdsourcing, collections, museum education, audience engagement

ABSTRACT/SUMMARY:

Are citizen history projects effective at promoting learning, increasing motivation, and assisting institutions with their collections goals? What are the institutional and practical problems that hold more projects back? New formal evaluation data suggests that many of the educational and institutional goals can be achieved by these projects. Yet, barriers still limit their adoption. This paper provides a historic look at crowdsourced efforts. It explains the similarities and differences between crowdsourcing, citizen science, and citizen history in cultural heritage institutions. A review of several case studies on citizen history reveals the benefits and challenges of institutional adoption. The paper concludes with practical advice for organizations considering citizen history for the future.

The advent of crowdsourcing

Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson introduced the neologism “crowdsourcing” to the lexicon in 2006. The term emerged first in the business world. Jeff Howe’s definition connected crowdsourcing with outsourcing, as he wrote in a now well-known and cited article for Wired: “Crowdsourcing is the act of taking a job traditionally performed by a designated agent (usually an employee) and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people in the form of an open call” (Ridge, 2014b). While crowdsourcing as a term stems from the early 2000s, the practice of organizations calling upon the support of volunteers to collect data is at least as old as the nineteenth century (Proctor, 2013).

Though the word crowdsourcing emerged first in the business sector, galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM) incorporated the practice in a variety of ways over the next decade, shaping and broadening the definition along the way. Most of these efforts benefited from advances made possible by the Internet. While a commonly agreed upon definition of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage organizations has been elusive, and institutional-led efforts are not the exclusive model in existence, general patterns have emerged. Scholars began to note the main goals of crowdsourced initiatives, including “transforming content from one format to another…describing artifacts…synthesizing new knowledge…or producing creative artifacts” (Ridge, 2014b, p.6). Others classified crowdsourced projects in even broader terms:

  1. Crowdsourcing projects that require the “crowd” to integrate/enrich/reconfigure existing institutional resources
  2. Crowdsourcing projects that ask the “crowd” to create/contribute novel resources

(Carletti, L., McAuley, D., Price, D., Giannachi, G., & Benford, S., 2013)

By 2014, “transcribathons” entered the scene and lexicon. Initially coined by the Folger Shakespeare Library, “transcribathons” have become a popular and generally recognizable way of gathering individuals together to work on transcriptions at the same time and sometimes the same place (Brumfield, 2020). To date, a number of large-scale GLAM crowd projects representing immense collections are thriving, such as those of the Smithsonian Transcription Center (https://transcription.si.edu/), the National Archives’ Citizen Archivist (https://www.archives.gov/citizen-archivist), and the Library of Congress’ By the People (https://crowd.loc.gov/).

Crowdsourcing over time

Looking back on the last decade of crowdsourcing in cultural heritage institutions, some in the field have noted three general phases of development. The first phase, dubbed “functional crowdsourcing,” most closely identified crowdsourcing with outsourcing, and sought as goals to save money, use more people, and do things digitally. “Crowdsourcing 2.0” corresponded with general trends in Web 2.0, in which crowdsourcing projects emphasized more collaborative work for participants and found new ways for crowds to develop their roles. In phase III, known as co-production, institutions invited participants to play integral roles in the developing of crowd project goals and fostered participant-to-participant interactions (Dunn and Hedges, 2017).

In addition to changes in audience engagement via crowdsourcing projects, others have seen a shift in crowdsourced endeavors in general from the realm of experimentation to maturity. Projects that were previously in lab spaces with open questions of their relationship with organizational objectives have been incorporated into content management systems and are now seen as clearly meeting institutional goals (Brumfield, 2020). It appears safe to say that crowdsourced efforts in cultural heritage organizations are likely to remain for the foreseeable future.

Citizen science over time

Just as the origins of crowdsourcing can be traced to at least the nineteenth century, citizen science is a concept that has been in existence for centuries. Citizen science projects typically consist of community members assisting scientific researchers and/or organizations with data collection, classification, or other research tasks in order to help answer ongoing scientific questions. In the same manner that the wide use of and access to the Internet paved the way for participatory projects we now call crowdsourced, the Internet heralded in a new era of citizen science research. Prospective citizen scientists could much more easily find out about opportunities and contribute, even if they were thousands of miles (or even lightyears) away from the subject of study. The Galaxy Zoo project (which led to the creation of the Zooniverse platform), for instance, invites citizen scientists to classify galaxies according to their morphology. In some cases, participating researchers are the first individuals to see the images from space, and some of the citizen scientists have made unexpected discoveries about the nature of the universe that further the field of astronomy. (https://www.zooniverse.org/projects/zookeeper/galaxy-zoo/)

homepage of the Galaxy Zoo's website, stating "Few have witnessed what you're about to see."
Figure 1: The Galaxy Zoo website led to the creation of the Zooniverse platform.

The advent of citizen history

The 2010s were fruitful for a convergence of citizen science concepts in the hard sciences with crowdsourcing in the humanities. A growing number of institutions began to ask what would happen if members of the general public were invited to help historical organizations, museums, libraries, or archives with ongoing historical research questions. Institutions such as Ford’s Theatre, the London Jewish Cultural Centre, and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum developed participatory projects around helping to answer research questions scholars were currently exploring. These experimental projects typically asked participants to do more complex or multifaceted investigation than traditional crowdsourced projects, whose success are often defined by short, clear, and straightforward tasks. In part due to these distinctions, institutions such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum have categorized crowdsourced efforts in the humanities tied to specific research and educational goals as “citizen history” projects.

Distinguishing between crowdsourcing, citizen science, and citizen history

Differences between crowdsourcing, citizen science, and citizen history projects in cultural heritage institutions, when they have been made, have been broadly based on end purpose. Crowdsourced efforts typically have as a primary goal the collecting, transformation, and/or making accessible of information. Often, goals include making information more available to a specific public or the general public. While some see little distinction between citizen science and traditional crowdsourcing, and label citizen science projects as one type of crowdsourced efforts related to scientific topics, citizen science projects are generally more rooted in the scientific research method, and may not necessarily involve general public access to and display of data at all (Ridge, 2014a). Existing citizen history projects to date have patterned themselves on the concepts and principles of citizen science. They are centered around historical research questions. In addition, some citizen history projects have made education goals for participants an equally important aim for project success as research goals.

Considering actual cases, the Brooklyn Museum’s GO: a community-curated open studio project, noted the benefits the crowdsourcing process itself had on volunteers but never made such benefits critical to project success (Ridge, 2014b). The Transcribe Bentham project, a successful crowdsourced effort led by UCL to transcribe the complete works of English philosopher and innovator Jeremy Bentham, lists as its goal “to engage the public in the online transcription (or typing) of original and unstudied manuscript papers written by Jeremy Bentham” (https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/transcribe-bentham/about/). While it is clear that the transcribed digitized documents in Transcribe Bentham will greatly assist scholars in their work, the project does not in itself share with prospective transcribers specific goals to answer historical questions about Bentham’s life or works. As a result, few if any would label these projects “citizen history.”

From the mid 2010s to 2020

In 2014, Mia Ridge critiqued the overpromise of a number of nascent citizen history projects. She outlined concerns such as: how does one distinguish between a “citizen historian” and “professional historian,” what aspects of a project qualify it as citizen history over traditional crowdsourcing, and what support should institutions undertaking citizen history projects give to help participants develop their historical thinking and research skills? Just as there has not been a universally agreed upon definition of crowdsourcing, Ridge pointed to what she saw as the inappropriate use of the term citizen history to a number of projects, including some like Operation War Diary, which due to the nature of the tasks and the lack of direct support for developing historical skills, may more appropriately be labeled crowdsourcing (Ridge, 2014a).

Even in the sciences, debate continues about the nature of citizen projects and their ability to not only benefit scientific research but to also co-created ventures on equal footing with the public.  Questions persist around concerns about ethics in citizen science and how to keep the participation of communities from being exploited. While the more pessimistic fears about exploitation have ebbed in the past few years, concerns remain about the potential for such exploitation in the future.

Despite initial concerns about crowdsourcing and citizen history, by the middle of the twenty-teens, considerable resources became available for humanities organizations to create their own projects.  The Crowd Consortium project worked with 50 organizations and compiled a variety of sources based on existing projects in the humanities and sciences.  Dunn and Hedges’ 2017 publication, Academic Crowdsourcing in the Humanities: Crowds, Communities and Co-Production, gathered existing results with new research to outline the potential for humanities-based crowd/community projects.

Initial forays in citizen humanities projects raised the possibility that such initiatives were the beginning of a new explosion of citizen humanities work to come. However, the anticipated proliferation of new citizen humanities work has not arrived. Even though many cultural institutions manage clearly established ongoing projects for crowdsourcing, questions remain about the long-term potential for cultural use of citizen history. Though such undertakings come with promise, a large question looms: are citizen history projects effective at promoting learning, increasing motivation, and assisting institutions with their collections goals?  What are the institutional and practical problems that hold more projects back? Should organizations consider planning a citizen history effort? The following case studies reveal both the continued potential and possible barriers to adoption.

Remembering Lincoln

In 2013 after receiving a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Ford’s Theatre began an effort to collect popular reactions around the United States to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and through the next 13 months of history. Remembering Lincoln’s goal was to “localize and personalize the story of the Lincoln assassination for people around the United States and world” by collecting diary entries, letters, ribbons, flags, photographs, and other records. The team worked with an audience evaluator and a digital strategist to shape the project, and Ford’s Theatre hoped to complete the collection in time for the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination (https://rememberinglincoln.fords.org/).

homepage of the Remembering Lincoln website, inviting users to "explore how people responded to Lincoln's assassination".
Figure 2: Front page of the Remembering Lincoln website from Ford’s Theatre.

The project team reached out to libraries, archives, historical societies, and school groups around the nation, inviting them to add to the collection. At the same time, Ford’s Theatre opened the submission process to anyone who was interested, from history buffs able to find materials in their local community to private collectors who own original items from the time. When Ford’s Theatre launched Remembering Lincoln, they planned for teachers and students to be a prime user audience. Targeted and general outreach to classrooms led a number of school groups to either submit research or work on material others contributed.

In one case, a high school teacher in Milwaukee brought students to local archives and historical societies. They uploaded a letter from an emotional soldier who was bitter at the loss of Lincoln and contemporary newspaper articles about Lincoln’s assassination, including from German language papers. Students demonstrated both a better understanding of the time period and Lincoln’s assassination. One student remarked that “I learned how different the thought processes and speech patterns were compared to modern day.” Equally as important, students gained valuable skills in how to conduct authentic historical research. Another student remarked, “I had not realized how primary sources are readily available for me to use.” Finally, students showed gains in motivation and enthusiasm: “I liked this project because you are doing work a historian would do, not just turning in a research paper that is read and forgotten.” (Lese, n.d.) A handful of other school groups participated as well with similar results.

 web page of contributing responses from students at St. Mary's University in San Antonio, Texas
Figure 3: Remembering Lincoln website contributor page for Dr. Teresa Van Hoy’s classes at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas.

Despite the fact that participating teachers found the project to be a rewarding experience for students, Ford’s Theatre has not received as much response from schools and individuals as they anticipated. The time-intensive nature of the research process combined with the lack of easily accessible material on a relatively narrow topic made it hard for more groups to participate. There was an idea when the project was formulated that all of these materials would emerge from the woodwork. Yet, participation to date has largely been from individuals or groups with an already established connection to the organization.

The creators of Remembering Lincoln, upon reflecting on the project after three years of operation, noted that while institutions can have both education and research goals for citizen history projects, practical limitations make it hard to give them equal weight, especially at the same time. Ford’s Theatre decided that between focusing on citizen history research or creating a finished product, the higher priority at the time was a finished product. While Remembering Lincoln has had some success engaging students in authentic historical research, the need to make the collected data available more readily, and with the precision and level of detail that teachers and other audience members demanded, moved the project team more towards working with professional institutions for the majority of the research collection. Ford’s Theatre also recognized that scaling up the project would take additional staff and resources beyond their capacity for the project, particularly as an institution with a smaller staff and other institutional priorities taking precedence (McKenzie, 2018).

These experiences appear to support Mia Ridge’s argument in 2014 that the success of citizen history projects is contingent to a great deal on the existence of “communities of experts and peers to nurture sparks of historical curiosity.” Ridge pointed out that the Operation War Diary project, though successful, appeared to lose momentum around 2013 when project creators determined they could not then regularly support the questions of log recorders (2014a, p. 10).

Children of the Lodz Ghetto 

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) has been experimenting with citizen history for over a decade. The museum learned a lot from its first citizen history effort, the Children of the Lodz Ghetto (https://www.ushmm.org/online/lodzchildren/). The project invited students and members of the general public to examine an album of signatures in the Lodz Ghetto to help the museum reconstruct the stories of school children in the community who fell victim to the Holocaust. Participating citizen historians typically performed their research using online databased compiled by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The information in these databases were pulled from sources that were originally written or typed in German, Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew. Eventually, the project team added PDF scans of Lodz labor cards (which included print and cursive handwritten names in Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew). While participants did find documents from outside sources, most prominently, the Yad Vashem website, such source material did not constitute the bulk of the research.

homepage of the Children of the Lodz Ghetto project, with an introduction to the project, latest research, project status, and student list
Figure 4: The Children of the Lodz Ghetto project was the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s first citizen history project.

The team chose to elevate to “expert reviewer” status volunteers who were particularly thorough, conducted quality research, and demonstrated effective communication skills. Expert reviewers then had the opportunity to remain engaged in a different way and assist the museum’s staff with review. While the expert reviewer status concept worked, it did not eliminate the need for museum staff to nurture the community on a daily basis. Staff members assigned to the project worked on it only part-time while managing their other responsibilities at the museum. It was clear that such part-time attention was not optimal for the full project potential.

The museum’s first citizen history effort taught the USHMM that such an undertaking, in order to be successful, needed to have full-time staff management. Moreover, broad-based institutional support, which this project did not have, was crucial for success. While some students appeared to only contribute the minimum required work as part of a class assignment, others students contributed beyond those requirements, sometimes for weeks and months later. This suggested to the USHMM that at least some were individually intrinsically motivated to work. Some participating citizen historians had an intensely emotional experience seeking to learn about, preserve, and honor the memory of the children of the ghetto. The project’s message board allowed volunteers to communicate their questions or reactions, and fostered a sense of community among the citizen historians. As many other organizations have found, museum staff working on the Children of the Lodz Ghetto project saw that quick, meaningful, and specific feedback helped keep volunteers engaged.

The institution worked to continue experimenting with citizen history in the years following the Children of the Lodz Ghetto‘s contributory phase. Among other unanswered questions, staff at the museum wanted to know beyond qualitative generalizations and anecdotal evidence whether citizen history projects could be effective at promoting learning, increasing motivation, and assisting institutions with their collections goals.

History Unfolded

In 2015, the museum launched another citizen history project called History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust (https://newspapers.ushmm.org/). History Unfolded invites students, teachers, and members of the general public to investigate how newspapers in local communities in the United States reported on a number of Holocaust-era events in the 1930s and 1940s. Participating citizen historians learn how to read old newspapers, discover what newspaper collections they have access to, read about different Holocaust-era events, choose one or more events to research, and then investigate the newspapers for possible coverage. Typically, citizen historians work with newspapers on microfilm at libraries or archives, or with digitized collections. The digitized collections are typically available on site at libraries or historical societies, or online through a subscription account or free public access. Citizen historians can then document their discoveries (or lack thereof) by submitting their research to the project database.

screenshot of the History Unfolded project, with introduction of the project, men reading newspapers, and buttons to learn more about the project
Figure 5: The History Unfolded: US Newspapers and the Holocaust project launched in 2015.

The History Unfolded project launched with a full-time dedicated community manager to oversee the review of submissions and to assist teachers, students, and project “power users” with their inquiries. As with The Children of the Lodz Ghetto project, the museum designed the project website “in house” with a development team. Site developers gave particular attention to making sure the website was user and mobile friendly. In order to find a balance between the desire to track involvement with citizen historians on the one hand and limit the barriers to participation on the other, museum staff decided to require a user name and password log-in only for those who upload content to the website.

At the time of writing, History Unfolded submission reviewers have approved over 25,000 entries to the database from more than 4,000 identified contributing citizen historians. The museum has identified nearly 200 unique classes from 37 different states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico contributing submissions to the database. Although high school students in US history and English courses were the original target audience, the USHMM quickly found out that university professors and students were as interested and likely to participate. The museum adjusted its target audience to include university participants. To date, upper elementary school students up to advanced graduate students contribute, as well as a power user base of mostly retirees, and even a handful of Holocaust survivors.

Unlike the Children of the Lodz Ghetto project, History Unfolded is rooted in the museum’s initiative on Americans and the Holocaust, with dedicated funding during the life of the project and goals aligned with and in support of other initiative goals. History Unfolded sought to provide research that would benefit an upcoming temporary exhibition on Americans and the Holocaust, as well as provide research for other educational materials and programs at the museum. Equally as important, the project listed student learning objectives in its project proposal. The museum wanted to see if students reported (1) knowledge outcomes consistent with the new initiative on Americans and the Holocaust;  (2) greater engagement in, and (3) enthusiasm for, historical research, (4) a positive experience from participating in the project. From the beginning, student learning was as important to the project’s success as the data from project participants.

teacher looking at a large interactive map display of newspaper reporting on the Holocaust at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Figure 6: Social studies teacher Katie Murr views an article her students contributed to History Unfolded on display in the special exhibition, Americans and the Holocaust.

In their attempt to answer questions about student motivation and learning, the USHMM has gathered informal evidence through qualitative data from students and adult volunteers. In addition, the museum set aside time and money to conduct a series of formal evaluations. During the 2017-2018 school year, the museum interviewed around a dozen teachers participating in History Unfolded with students. During the 2018-2019 school year, the museum hired an external evaluator to conduct a formal study of student learning via a student survey and then follow up interview with some of the surveyed students.

History Unfolded Evaluation Results

The History Unfolded project’s full-time community manager has provided the museum with qualitative and quantitative data about members of the community in the over four years of the project’s existence to date. The community manager has also worked with teachers and students, either to implement the project, answer questions, see the project in action on the ground, or hear from the students once research is complete. Informal data from teachers and students over the life of the project suggests that History Unfolded has been meeting its education goals for students. Some students write in a comments box when submitting their articles how fascinating they find the project. As perhaps a surprise to the museum, students have reported about how interesting they find the hands-on microfilm technology to be. As the back-end data shows, many students have exceeded the minimum submissions requirements necessary for a top grade. On rare occasions, some students continue contributing weeks or months after their assignments are due. In the first several years of the project’s existence, educators continued to adopt the History Unfolded project, often for multiple semesters. The initial success of the project led the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to extend the project’s article intake stage end date from 2018 to 2021 and then again to 2022 at the time of writing.

The USHMM sought to supplement informal qualitative and quantitative data suggesting that the project has been successful in meeting its educational goals with more targeted investigations into student work. In 2017-2018, the museum interviewed a dozen teachers participating in History Unfolded to gain insights into teacher perceptions of student learning. The museum chose to interview high school teachers whose students submitted at least one article to the project database in the 2017-2018 school year. The group included public and private school teachers from various regions of the country in history, English, and Holocaust studies courses. All interviewed teachers answered the same set of questions about student learning and motivation.

Overall, the teachers the museum interviewed agreed that the History Unfolded project was successful for their students. While some teachers admitted that they chose only to introduce the project to their advanced level classes, an alternative school teacher found great success with her students. Teachers felt strongly that the project helped students develop historical research and media literacy skills. A number of the teachers mentioned that while students often struggled and were frustrated by not being able to immediately or easily find news stories on the Web, the students also learned how to use original newspapers, microfilmed newspapers, or online databases to find information. Some teachers noted how their students made significant gains in understanding how to read newspapers from the time period. A few teachers directly mentioned how the project better prepared their students for the skills they would need for college.

two students looking through a shelf of microfilm as they get ready to research the reels on a reader
Figure 7: Students perform research for the History Unfolded project at the Martin Luther King Jr. branch of the D.C. Public Library.

Teacher reflections on student content knowledge acquisition were a little more nuanced. In some cases, teachers said that student knowledge outcomes were consistent with expectations, but did not exceed them. Some teachers were unsure whether individual students learned as much about the Holocaust as they would have via other forms of instruction. On the other hand, other teachers saw the project as a very effective way to teach the Holocaust. Some teachers pointed to how the project helped challenge misconceptions and myths about the Holocaust. Another recurring theme was how the project allowed students to better frame Holocaust history in terms of American history and consider factors that would have influenced American knowledge of and responses to the Holocaust. Teachers reported that students were very interested in seeing prices for products, the effect of the Great Depression and World War II, and how often local news took precedence over international stories about the persecution of Jews.

In terms of student motivation, the majority of teachers saw a strong connection between participation and engagement. They mentioned that students were often in disbelief or shocked to discover that the United States Holocaust Museum wanted their work. Several teachers brought their students from high schools to universities to do research, and the outside the classroom field trip experience also appeared to have positive effects. The fact that accepted student submissions were then published to the website with credit to the student appeared to have a clearly motivating impact on some contributors. The local element to the research also seemed to help students relate to and see value in their work. On the other hand, some students who were unable to find articles or found the project too challenging did not have a positive experience. And some teachers mentioned that while the majority of their students appeared to be motivated by the research, other students were not.

Following these teacher interviews, the museum hired an external evaluator and undertook a year-long formal evaluation process during the 2018-2019 academic year. The evaluation looked specifically at student motivation, appreciation for the historical process, and understanding of the Holocaust. Over 100 college and high school students from public and private institutions around the United States completed a post-then-pre design survey for students to assess their own perception to a series of questions. In order to triangulate survey responses, and to gather a more in-depth understanding of specific changes in students’ perceptions, follow-up discussions were conducted with 39 students from five high schools and two colleges (both private and public).

The evaluation results strongly suggests that the History Unfolded project is reaching its educational goals for students. The survey showed student self-reported gains in enjoyment in learning history and a sense that participation in the historical process can be a personally meaningful endeavor.  Whereas 52% of students reported that they felt they could conduct research that makes an important contribution to the historical record before doing the project, 84% of students agreed they could after submitting research to History Unfolded.

bar chart showing student answers to survey before and after participating in History Unfolded
Figure 8: Evaluation Chart Data

Students reported even larger gains in their ability to use a variety of research tools to gather evidence about past events following the project experience (from 42% to 93%). They also reported that their content knowledge of American public responses to the Holocaust increased significantly (from 27% to 87%).

bar chart showing student answers to survey before and after participating in History Unfolded
Figure 9: Evaluation Chart Data

Evaluation follow up discussion results were consistent with the initial survey data. Some students mentioned that they learned about the availability of information on the Holocaust in local newspapers, as well as the extent to which newspapers promoted or downplayed those stories via article placement on page, page in newspaper, headline information, length of stories, etc. Some students pointed to American responses, including protests and rallies, as evidence that at least some Americans knew about the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust. As teachers reported in the 2017-2018 interviews, some students also admitted that the project helped challenge their own misconceptions about the Holocaust.

The majority of students who participated in follow-up interviews mentioned many positive takeaways regarding citizen history projects. Students were receptive to the open nature of the project, available to anyone, regardless of whether they had particular expertise or education prior to beginning the project. A handful of students found that citizen history projects are a great way for participants/contributors to learn more about a topic. Conversely, a few students did mention that the project took a lot of time and that citizen projects are not necessarily equitable, in that participants need access to newspapers and/or the Internet. Students commonly called doing the research “fun” and some specifically mentioned that they appreciated the opportunity to do a “higher level” project than a typical history class assignment.

Lessons for the USHMM

Initial successes with The Children of the Lodz Ghetto project and qualitative and quantitative data for the History Unfolded project strongly suggested to the museum that learning history by doing history (citizen history) could be an effective learning methodology. The museum’s decision to place equal value on the research process for students and the end results for the museum partially addresses the call by others in the field to place more emphasis on the crowdsourcing process in itself as opposed to focusing primarily or exclusively on the end results of data collection, access, or transformation (Owens, 2013). Importantly, the data also indicates that the museum did not need to sacrifice research or collections goals in order to meet education goals. The History Unfolded project continues to reach new milestones in submission approvals. While several dozen power users do contribute about half of the research findings, it is also true that more than 4,000 identified contributors have submitted roughly the other half of the approved articles. Students have often contributed fascinating local news stories that will be as important to scholars and digital humanities historians as those found by the smaller cadre of power users.  Similar to Ford’s Theatre, the USHMM has found that it is hard to both nurture a community and focus on a finished product at the same time. For USHMM, the focus of History Unfolded is currently on building the database. In “phase II,” the project team plans to end data collection and enhance the website data for analysis and study.

At the same time, the museum’s forays into citizen history have required a large amount of resources, staff time, and money for success. A number of the museum’s challenges with the Children of the Lodz Ghetto project related to staff attending the needs of the project participants only on a part-time basis. Conversely, success with History Unfolded appears to be rooted in part to hiring a full-time community manager whose responsibilities include answering participant questions, regularly updating citizen historians on progress via community emails and social media, coming up with research challenges, meeting participating school groups and power users on visits to the museum, and working to ensure timely review and publication of submission data. The community manager also plans and leads “research sprints,” whereby members do concentrated research for a limited amount of time at a library, archive, historical society or other institution. By working solely on History Unfolded, the community manager also drives future planning around the project and ensures that the USHMM does not otherwise neglect to think about how the project can grow and improve in the future.

In addition to the community manager’s salary, there have been additional costs associated with quality control of data as the project has scaled up. For the History Unfolded project, the amount of submitted data over time exceeded the community manager’s ability to review alone. As a result, the museum experimented with a variety of ways to expand review capacity, ultimately making enhancements to the back-end of the website and hiring a small number of contractors to do around-the-clock review. The contract model has proved to be the most reliable method to ensure timely review, but it also costs thousands of dollars a month to maintain.

Beyond these staffing costs, there have been a substantial amount of time, resources, and costs associated with marketing History Unfolded. The museum’s name and existing networks of teachers and students have helped the project reach a national audience of teachers, librarians, and students. Beyond reaching existing networks, the museum’s marketing office also spent considerable funds to reach teachers not connected to the institution. While the original project proposal included an extremely ambitious goal of reaching thousands of classes around the country, the reality has been that the project’s reach has been much more modest. The History Unfolded community of active educators generally consists of a few hundred teachers who find the project meets their own objectives for student learning as well as a smaller group of citizen historians who feel a connection with the museum already, are interested in history, newspapers, genealogical research, or want to play a direct role in honoring the lives and memory of Holocaust victims.

Moreover, the museum was aware that a part of the project’s success relied on offering something members of the community were actually interested in, and helping to address legitimate needs in the community. The museum created user personas before designing the project and made changes to the experience based on an initial prototype in several classrooms. Teachers participating with History Unfolded repeatedly mention the project’s value in helping students to develop their primary source reading and analysis skills. Participating teachers find that the project is aligned with their curriculum content requirements and that the assignment can be worked into time and other practical constraints. Further, student motivation during the project, as mentioned before, appears to be rooted in a part due to the realization that the project is not busy work, but actually serves a larger purpose.  The project’s high retention rate among participating educators is possibly due to the continued relevance of the program for teachers and the community manager’s ability to work with teachers to adapt assignments each semester.

Conclusions on citizen history

The History Unfolded project at the USHMM in particular suggests that citizen history projects can be successful. In addition to answering the question of whether such endeavors can be successful is an equally important one of whether other institutions should engage in them. Institutions should look at their goals and see whether citizen history will help them fulfill their mission or purpose. Citizen history may appear to be the “next level” in institutionally-led crowd participation, but the reality is that neither traditional crowdsourcing in the humanities nor citizen history is superior. Unless experimenting with new forms of programming or outreach is in itself the goal, institutions should avoid the temptation to engage in crowdsourcing or citizen history simply because it is popular or trendy. Too often, organizations start with a desire to do crowdsourcing as a means to bring many more people in, when they should employ the principles of backward design and see if crowdsourcing and/or citizen history are effective methodologies in reaching overall goals. Related to this, recent citizen history projects have mirrored established crowdsourced efforts in dispelling the notion that soliciting crowds to do work is an inherent cost-saving measure. If anything, the projects examined above prove that undertaking such efforts require as much if not more costs than relying primarily or exclusively on internal or professional services.

Institutions who find that citizen history is a potentially effective way to reach goals should work to gain broad institutional support among staff prior to the project’s launch. They should be prepared to devote resources and staff time towards building and maintaining a robust community for the entire duration of the project. They should also learn what the needs and desires of the community are, and be prepared to continue to adapt and grow along the way. Addressing legitimate needs in the community is certainly likely to foster participation, but is in itself no guarantee that prospective volunteers will learn about the project or contribute.

If the project is likely to have a dedicated online presence, money and time to maintain and improve the web experience is crucial. Organizations should also plan for and budget additional resources in the event the project grows at scale. Whereas Ford’s Theatre and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum planned and launched relatively large projects with an ambitious national scope, other institutions could consider smaller-scale projects more manageable for their staff and in line with their budgets.

Moreover, organizations should think carefully about the language they use when designing citizen projects. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is currently reviewing if “citizen history” and “citizen historians”  are the most effective or appropriate terms to use. In addition to concerns about what distinguishes a “citizen historian” from a professor or amateur historian, there have been concerns recently about the connotations of “citizen,” especially at the present time in the Washington, DC area, where debates about the meaning and significance of “citizenship” abound.

Though organizations should not walk into citizen projects blindly, they should not turn a blind eye to them either. Citizen history continues to show promise. Feedback from educators and students who have participated in projects such as Ford Theatre’s Remembering Lincoln and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Children of the Lodz Ghetto project, along with new formal evaluation data from the USHMM’s History Unfolded project, suggest that citizen history promotes student learning, motivation, and a sense of connection with the outside world. Citizen history can be an effective learning methodology that can also provide societal benefits. Organizations who carefully plan and support them may find many rewards, both for their institutions and for the members of the public they serve.

 

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Cite as:
Schmalz, Eric and Haley Goldman, Michael. "Citizen History – so close or too far? Current results from Citizen History and the Problems of Creating Participatory Projects." MW20: MW 2020. Published January 16, 2020. Consulted .
https://mw20.museweb.net/paper/citizen-history-so-close-or-too-far-current-results-from-citizen-history-and-the-problems-of-creating-participatory-projects/