Week 12: Citizen History

In September I attended the AASLH annual meeting in Richmond. One of the sessions I wanted to attend, but didn’t get the chance, was led by the editors of a recent work titled Letting Go? Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World. If you follow the link to the publisher’s page, you can read the table of contents. Although the book is focused more on the museum community and pubic history, it came to mind when I was reading the articles and essays assigned for this week.

Written history, academic history, often seems to be written with the idea of authority, either in finality or in a closed conversation. One of the apparent consequences of the “professionalization” of history (( Generally used to describe the late 19th century creation of a distinct identity for historians working in the academy )) has been historians writing and “doing” history for other historians. This is not in and of itself problematic, but it has led to an assumption that everyone speaks the same language and knows (and will follow) a similar set of rules.  Citizen history changes the rules and the language.

Of course, the rules and language were never as set in stone as some would think. Historians working in museums or otherwise with the public have been aware of that, whether or not they accepted it. A curator can write clear label text, carefully construct an exhibit and educational program; there will still be visitors who ignore all the presented information, or who read what you have written in a completely unexpected way. The divergence of intended and received information can be seen as a failure, but how we react to that failure can change, in fact seems to be changing.

From my entirely self-informed understanding of 20th century educational and museum history, there was for some time an attempt to change the behavior of the visitor. The exchange of information, whether from a curator or academic historian, was one way: into the audience. The challenge which is now being voiced by some, including (I believe) the editors and contributors of Letting Go, is to start a conversation, to engage the audience in a conversation, and moreover to listen to them.

Giving voice to the non-experts is scary. How can we give up the authority that we have earned through hours of work, reading, and all those graduate classes? What if they don’t listen to us? What if they are wrong about something, or say that we are wrong?

On the other hand, listening to the non-experts is exciting. When they realize how broad and deep our knowledge is, they respect all the hours of work and reading (well, most of the time).  If we listen to them, they may be more inclined to listen to us. At times, they may still get it wrong.

The main concern I have seen in citizen history, both in my own experience and in the readings, is a fear that the public will misbehave – commit vandalism, break the tool or the site. It is expecting the absolute worst behavior of people. Certainly, there will be some vandals. There will be the one person who stands on the left side of the Metro escalator, who talks loudly on their phone in the quite train car, who speeds recklessly on the highway. There will still be all the other people standing on the right, reading quietly, and driving within 10 MPH of the posted limit. We should give those people a chance.

Moreover, we should be excited to give those people a chance. They can be extremely passionate about things that interest us, or even things that do not. As Roy Rosenzweig mentions in his article about Wikipedia, the user-generated encyclopedia  “offers a detailed 3,100-word article titled “Postage Stamps and Postal History of the United States,” a topic with a devoted popular following that attracts little scholarly interest.” Although not generally applicable or usually publishable, this group of wikipedians might prove helpful should a curator at the US Postal Museum run into a thorny problem.

Moreover, once a community of participants has established itself, they will help to keep down the number of vandals and troublemakers. Full disclosure: I have an account to edit Wikipedia. Just this past week I was reading an entry and noticed that someone had added “youll love these awesome deals” to one of the references. So I went in and made a minor edit. Users may have their differences, but in general I think the citizen historians are interested and excited to be included in a meaningful historical project.

That, for me, is one of the best reasons to be willing to surrender a little authority, to listen as well as talk: the enthusiasm of the volunteer can restore your own energy and dedication to a project. (( I almost wrote a long paragraph comparing this feeling to the benefit of a responsive audience for theatre actors – as compared to an empty room – but I decided to stick it in this footnote instead. Maybe later. ))