Citizen Historians VS Exploitation of Labor

The first article I will be discussing in this post is Elissa Frankle’s guest post of the Center for the Future of Museums blog. Frankle is an education consultant at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and was working with citizen historians to try and diversify perspectives and use the interest of museum goers to influence the kind of work museums are doing. This angle is meant to prevent the gate-keeper tendency of professional historians, who she argues tend to assume that audiences want answers and hard facts instead of exploring their own inquiries and curiosity.

In an effort to get citizen historians involved in the content and projects of the Holocaust Memorial Museum, Frankle launched a website where citizen historians could help uncover the fates of over 14,000 students from the Lodz Ghetto who signed a student album in 1941. By mining data and making connections that professional historians might not have made, these citizen historians offered new information and new perspectives. The submissions were reviewed by Frankle for accuracy and evidence. Eventually, citizen historians with strong track records of quality, well researched work would help Frankle review the submissions on the website.

The idea behind bringing in citizen historians to help conduct research and draw new conclusions is to try and get away from the elitism that sometimes happens among historians. Despite being experts in research and their respective areas of history, there are only so many voices represented in a museum setting, and only so many people who are able to conduct research on these topics. Allowing amateur and hobby historians to contribute to these projects brings the public into projects that are ultimately meant to help the public, like identifying lost students of the Holocaust and help prevent Holocaust denial. It also brings in fresh eyes to possibly identify what professionals might miss. Over all, allowing citizen historians to get involved with important projects helps expand the lens important historical issues are considered through.

Despite being good for museums and professional historians, citizen historians and others who offer their humanities services online are hurt by the trend of crowdsourcing and the internet as a free platform. In a piece written for her “Introduction to Librarianship” class, Alison Minor explores the ethics of offering your services for free online. The internet as a democratized platform has encouraged the collaborative efforts of blogs, open source software, and wikipedia, however this raises an important question: “how can i get paid for my profession if there are people out there who are willing to do the work for free?

Minor recalls a project to make a pathfinder that might help basic or amateur researches with their work. Although this is useful to those who need it, creating a list of resources for free to help others who are being paid brings into question the ethics of free online work. Another example of this is Minor working to sell people the rights to use photos from a collection at the British Museum, and then the museum deciding to put all of the photos up in full resolution online for free. Although this is one less expense for those who need the photos, it put Minor out of a job.

Thinking of archives, photographs, and pathfinders as something people are entitled to has been exacerbated by the internet. Minor argues that although people would love to have these things for free, it’s not realistic for anyone to do the work to make them available without compensation. Our society does not allow for everyone to pursue their passion if their passion doesn’t pay, and if those who are passionate about history aren’t willing to do the work for free, no one will do it.

Despite there being some citizen historians who are ready and willing to help identify students living in Nazi Germany on the side, not everyone who wants to do history wants to do it for free. In order for this to be a viable career for those who are excited and talented and willing to go into history, we have to start valuing their work and not feeling entitled to it at no cost. Either that, or Minor’s alternate suggestion of Communism.

One Reply to “Citizen Historians VS Exploitation of Labor”

  1. I think the Lodz Ghetto project is specifically meant for ordinary people who are not historians working for free, like the case Alison Miner talks about. I don’t think they’re making a habit of trying to pursue it as a profession, at least that’s not the impression I got. They’re hobbyists, like you said. I think Elizabeth Merritt makes several important points between the historian and citizen historians. By letting citizens interact with history by doing research on their own makes the history more accessible and interactive in a way and also allows them to explore a possible further interest in history regarding potentially wanting to study it professionally. I think the project also demonstrates to ordinary people how hard it actually is to be a historian. Oftentimes, research is much harder than it looks because there are dead-ends, lack of info, etc., that creates roadblocks for historians, forcing them to use their imaginations. This project (hopefully) creates a newfound respect for professional historians and how hard their jobs actually are.

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