Where are the citizen historians?

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Citizen scientists report on weather and other natural phenomena.  Is there a parallel for the collection of historical data?  Photo credit:  wienotfilms

Citizen scientists report on weather and other natural phenomena. Is there a parallel for the collection of historical data? Photo credit: wienotfilms

A while ago I received an e-mail from SciStarter. I had signed up on its Web site to look for research opportunities where I live. No, I wasn’t searching for a chance to do a report on the history of science but rather to see what science research projects needed help in my area. Let me step back a bit and explain.

My employer–the Forest Preserve District of Will County–is a land conservation, recreation, and environmental education government entity. We tend to do some history as well, which is where I fit in. Through my work, I frequently encounter notices and requests from my organization and sister organizations in neighboring counties for “citizen scientists.” These and similar organizations are looking for volunteers to help with scientific research projects. My first reaction was, “How cool.” My second reaction was, “How professional is that?”

It turns out that it is quite professional. Volunteers aren’t necessarily working in labs and handling expensive equipment. Professionally trained scientists lead projects and handle the complex aspects of work. The many volunteers, or citizen scientists, do what they can do rather well: collect and track data.

Technology has helped to aid in this process. As previously mentioned, websites such as SciStarter can connect interested members of the public with research projects that meet their interests or location. With more and more people having smartphones, scientists are including apps in their projects for the public to download. This is turning phones into scientific equipment. It is an easy way to collect not only data but the metadata as well. Scientists can see when and where that data was collected and other information.

To give one example of how these apps are being used, I’ve been using mPing  (which stands for Meteorological Phenomena Identification Near the Ground) to track precipitation for the National Weather Service (NWS). Using a rain gauge we have at the museum or the one at my home, I can measure how much precipitation has fallen, observe the type–such as rain, sleet, or snow–and record it on the mPing app, and then the information is sent to the NWS. Next, all the information is collected and added to a GIS map where one can see patterns of accumulation. Using this app allows the NWS to harness the information from dozens of citizen scientists in a location to get more accurate “on the ground” readings. According to the app, since 2012, there have been almost a half-million reports added to their database.

ranger with kids

An Australian national park ranger talks to participants in a 2013 “bioblitz” in Woomargama National Park. Photo credit: Esther Beaton 52

But citizen science engages the public with research through more than just the use of gadgetry. Frog monitoring workshops still train people to identify different frog calls by ear. Restoration Workdays have volunteers removing invasive plants and collecting seeds from native plants to measure the health of a prairie. A “bioblitz” day brings together scientists and volunteers for 24 hours of data and/or species collecting at a site. This process allows scientists to get a large snapshot of a region over a period of time. Citizen scientists spread out over a select area to identify and log the different flora and fauna they find. Results from the blitz help to identify the biodiversity of an area. This in turn leads to better understanding of habitat use or loss, the impacts of climate change, and patterns of migration, to name a few. This is information which is useful beyond pure research and study, with results which can impact land use, management policy, and much more. These are just some examples of how scientists and citizen scientists can work together.

So it raised a question for me: “Where are the citizen historians?” Or for that matter, ”Do we need any?” Maybe there are other questions to answer first.

For example, are the kinds of data gathered by both professional and volunteer scientists comparable to the kinds of materials that historians go in search of? How might this approach relate to the activities of the countless avocational historians–the reenactors, genealogists, collectors, and others whom Benjamin Filene has termed “’outsider’ history-makers”–who used to be part of our circle, and who are already busy collecting and using their own data? [1] Are they comparable to birders, frog monitors, seed collectors, restoration volunteers, and other citizen scientists? In other words, is the citizen scientist model one that historians can adopt and adapt for their purposes?

I’m posing this question as a provocation and an invitation. As someone with my feet in both worlds, I’d like to hear your thoughts below.

~ Harry Klinkhamer is an Interpretive Specialist at the Forest Preserve District of Will County in Illinois.

[1] Benjamin Filene, “Passionate Histories:  ‘Outsider’ History-Makers and What They Teach Us,” The Public Historian Vol. 34, No. 1 (Winter 2012): 11-33.

  1. Tracy Huling says:

    Thanks for this article! We at the Prison Public Memory Project are citizen historians doing citizen history…Check us out at http://www.prisonpublicmemory.org. And definitely see our Facebook page and Twitter feed to understand how it works.

  2. Mark says:

    They’re the volunteer staff of local historical societies and museums, military-based reenactors, and historic tradespeople, among other, all of whom use museum collections, seek out well-researched histories and object studies, and share their research as broadly as possible (they’re adept at using social media). True, some are better historians than others, but that”s true for the professionals as well.

  3. Danny Younger says:

    I became a citizen historian some four years ago when I took it upon myself to locate the site of a French & Indian War fort in northeastern Pennsylvania (and yes, it took a full four years of historical research and ground surveys to find the fort). I’m now in the process of preparing a monograph for publication based on the findings at the locale and their implications.

  4. Mia says:

    This is a question I’ve been investigating for my PhD, which conversely makes it hard to discuss with any succinctness! All kinds of claims are being made about ‘citizen history’ in relation to crowdsourcing, and I definitely think crowdsourcing enables citizen historians to develop or discover an interest in history that leads to the development of skills and experience we see in some avocational historians. However, the term is also being used to describe people who are transcribing text rather than acting as historians, and this rather muddies the waters. I think we need a slightly more nuanced vocabulary to describe those who are taking part in public/citizen history projects (who may well become historians) without drawing on historians’ skills.

    1. Cathy Stanton says:

      Mia, it would be great to see a blog post from you on your research! If you’re interested, please email us at infophc[at]iupui.edu.

      1. Mia says:

        Thanks Cathy! It’s tricky because I haven’t submitted my thesis yet, but I’m giving a paper on ‘Citizen History and its discontents’ in the IHR’s Digital History seminar series this month (http://www.history.ac.uk/events/seminars/321) so I’ll see what I can manage.

  5. Sheila Brennan says:

    I agree with Mia that we need a broader vocabulary so that we can talk about different types of history work, since there is a lot of it occurring in different public institutions, public spaces online and in-person, and inside gated online communities as well.

    I think there are many citizen historians who are working together like the citizen scientists Harry references, and digital tools has enabled that type of work. They work for little or no pay, and contribute to the larger body of historical knowledge by transcribing a document or census tables (Ancestry, NYPL, Transcribe Bentham, Papers of the War Department, SI Transcribe), georectifying historical maps (NYPL), identify individuals in photographs (US Holocaust Memorial Museum), share and collect digital copies of material culture, oral histories, or written remembrances from people, about significant events and places (History Pin, September 11 Digital Archive, Bracero History), or create Wikipedia entries of little known individuals, events, places, et al. I’ve missed many more examples, but I think it’s very present. And there are training sessions that people can go to or screencasts to watch that encourage participation.

    One thing to keep in mind is that many professional scientists bristle at the term “citizen scientists” who are doing collecting and organizing work, but aren’t necessarily doing the same kinds of scientific research and analysis as someone who does this for a living.

    1. Roberta says:

      Historians treated me with such absolute disdain that I decided to go my own way. Many of us are out here, hoping to leave a legacy, but doing what we do independently.

  6. Susan says:

    Well, and then there are people like me. My most recent novel (Spider in a Tree) is about Northampton, MA during the time of eighteenth century preacher, theologian and slave-owner Jonathan Edwards. I spent more than ten years researching. I’m not a trained historian, but I learned a lot of history. Now I’m working the seventeenth century and the story of Elizabeth Tuttle, who was Jonathan Edwards’s grandmother. Along the way, I encountered a lot of people, trained and untrained, who were passionate and knowledgeable about history. Yes, they do seem like citizen historians to me.

  7. Luke Sprague says:

    I agree with Mia as well.

    The terms used to describe different types of people working the field of history is way too confusing. So this is a little tricky.

    One part of me says if someone wants to call themselves a historian…don’t interfere with that right.

    However, as a trained historian with a master’s degree I know from experience that professional training can make one heck of difference in the end result.

    That said, there is nothing that says an amateur historian cannot learn these skills; it is just acknowledging that there is some intrinsic value in them.

    For example, I observe citizen historians creating and writing narratives, books, etc., but then they don’t cite their sources…how are we going to figure out where they got the information from a century from now?

    One of the other things I observe with citizen historians is they fail to place whatever content they are creating in a larger context and tell us how this fits in the existing historical context., i.e.: historiography…how what you said fits in with the rest of the histories.

    With that said, I am reluctant ever to place boundaries or labels on people; so, you can see my dilemma.

    I agree with Mia, a historian may transcribe text as part of a project or something they are doing; HOWEVER, it is like using a surgical instrument to hammer nails…really a misunderstanding and misuse of their real value.


  8. Adina Langer says:

    I’m glad to see such a robust discussion around this post! For anyone who hasn’t read it, I’d recommend reading Leslie Madsen-Brooks article in “Writing History in the Digital Age,” entitled ““I nevertheless am a historian”: Digital Historical Practice and Malpractice around Black Confederate Soldiers (Spring 2012 version). http://writinghistory.trincoll.edu/crowdsourcing/madsen-brooks-2012-spring/

  9. Matt says:

    Found this while looking for information and opportunities for “citizen historians.” For the past few months I have been documenting my local history on my blog (https://bouseblog.wordpress.com/) and am excited to hear about other people doing the same thing.

  10. April says:

    I have found three excellent projects that are perfect for citizen historians. http://whaling.oldweather.org/#/ transcribes 19th-Century whaling ship logs for scientists and historians to monitor climate change. http://www.discoverfreedmen.org/ transcribes Freedmen’s Bureau records for African-American genealogical research. My personal favorite is http://emigrantcity.nypl.org/#/intro, the New York Public Library’s effort to digitize mortgage records from the late 19th-Century. Have fun!

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