Print Project Proposal: Learning from USHMM’s Latest Citizen History Initiative

Since the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) launched “History Unfolded” in 2016, over 3,000 citizen historians have contributed nearly 23,000 newspaper articles to help USHMM answer the question, “What did American newspapers report about Nazi persecution during the 1930s and 1940s?” This question may seem simple on its face, but answering it thoroughly requires extensive, wide-ranging archival research into news coverage in publications across the U.S. The scale of this task makes it a prime candidate for crowdsourced research. To facilitate this research effort, USHMM has created a custom digital platform that outlines key events in Holocaust history, connects users to archival resources for conducting research in local publications, invites users to contribute their research findings, and sheds light on the American information environment in the 1930s and 1940s.

Given the success of USHMM’s earlier citizen history initiative, “The Children of the Lodz Ghetto,” it should be no surprise that the Museum is leveraging digital technology to engage the public in historical inquiry. Public History practitioners have written positively about “The Children of the Lodz Ghetto,” emphasizing the project’s mutual benefits for citizen historians and USHMM. Participants made meaningful connections with Holocaust history by engaging in research about children’s experiences in the Lodz Ghetto. Creating participatory research opportunities for a broad community of citizen historians, especially students and educators, allowed USHMM to share historical authority while gaining new insights into both the historical research process and Holocaust history. Ultimately, the Lodz Ghetto project served as a positive and compelling example for USHMM and other institutions interested in the potential that crowdsourcing holds for large-scale research and transcription projects.

So, what can (public) historians learn from “History Unfolded?”

In what ways might “History Unfolded” serve as a model for institutions to advance new citizen history initiatives? Are there certain types of questions and/or data that are better suited for crowdsourced historical research? Is a digital crowdsourcing platform a viable educational tool for training emerging scholars in historical inquiry? My print project would seek to answer these questions, using “History Unfolded” as a case study. It would focus on how, specifically, USHMM is using its custom digital research platform to engage the public.

My print project would also analyze the messages that “History Unfolded” is conveying, and to which audiences. For example, “History Unfolded” makes a clear methodological argument by promoting the value of archival research and privileging primary sources; what influence might participating in “History Unfolded” have on emerging scholars, for whom the initiative could be their first exposure to robust historical inquiry? In a different vein, “History Unfolded” is making a historical argument about the significance of certain events in Holocaust history, as participants are limited to submitting articles about only 37 events from 1933 to 1945.

Whether you’re intrigued by the practical implications of “History Unfolded” or the methodological and historical arguments it makes, my project’s inquiry could be a useful companion to our course readings on collaboration on the web and digital history and argument.

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