Allgemein Englisch vDHd2021 Blogreihe

Introducing “Migrant Connections:” A Digital History Research Hub for Learning and Participatory Activity by/for/with Citizen Scholars

How do Citizen Humanities projects develop? And how have such endeavors changed over the course of the last decades? One of the research areas of the German Historical Institute Washington (GHI) focuses on the intersection of Digital History and German Migration to the United States.

Note: This is the original article in English, written by Jana Keck (GHI Washington). The German translation (automatically with DeepL) can be found here.

How do Citizen Humanities projects develop? And how have such endeavors changed over the course of the last decades? One of the research areas of the German Historical Institute Washington (GHI) focuses on the intersection of Digital History and German Migration to the United States. In this blog post, I want to tell the story about how the GHI’s “new” project “Migrant Connections” came into existence – dating back to the 1980s – by putting emphasis on the collaborative efforts between researchers and citizen scholars. “Migrant Connections” will be launched in the fall of 2021 as an online research hub for learning and participatory activity consisting of several subprojects that bring together hidden or neglected sources about German migration to the United States in the 19th and 20th century, including letters, poems, diaries, and lists. By providing two examples of how people from academic and non-academic environments have collaboratively worked together to make “Migrant Connections” possible, I want to outline the opportunities of combining methods from Digital History with Citizen Humanities initiatives. One of the research outcomes of “Migrant Connections” is a digital archive of diverse records about migrants and the ones they said goodbye. This repositorium will allow us to answer new research questions that go beyond the elite. We all notice how important it is to support the historical representation of different, especially minoritized groups for the stabilization of our democracy.

Reaching out to Citizen Scholars since the 1980s: From Newspapers to Social Media

To receive information about the countries of departure and arrival, people depended on a transatlantic communication network in the form of newspapers, travel guides, and letters. We can estimate from statistics based on shipping or immigration lists, how many people emigrated and immigrated, or use numeric data by postal offices to determine how many letters were exchanged across the Atlantic. And yet, these statistics do not give us insight into the daily lives of migrants and the ones they said goodbye to.

In the 1980s, historian Wolfgang Helbich was looking for letters sent from German immigrants in the United States in the 19th century to their homeland. He found numerous editions of letters sent by immigrants to other European countries, but no representative edition of letters sent to the German states. To close this research gap for the country with the highest number of emigrants in the long 19th century, Helbich started what would now be called a “crowdsourcing” initiative to collect letters. He reached out to 120 daily newspapers in West Germany asking them to print a text on the importance of letters as historical sources. Three-quarters of the newspapers reprinted this request and his “crowdsourcing call” resulted in the development of the Bochum Collection of Emigrants’ Letters (BABS), which was to grow to 6,000 letters by 1990. From 1984-88, Helbich together with other researchers, students and “volunteer helpers” worked on indexing and transcribing the material.1

In 1999, the letters were transferred to the Gotha Research Library. Since the collection, however, only included letters collected from the old Federal Republic, Ursula Lehmkuhl, today Professor of International History at the University of Trier, and Rupert Schaab, former head of the Gotha Research Library, in consultation with Helbich, developed a project in the 2000s to expand the collection with letters from the new federal states. Like Helbich’s initial endeavor, the objective was to use crowdsourcing to track down as many letters as possible and preserve them for the future. However, the new project went one step further: Lehmkuhl and her team wanted to bring the project into the classroom. They reached out to teachers to encourage them to integrate the topic of emigration and immigration into their courses and to motivate students to track down old letters from America among their families. Now, they were using advances in information technology that led to new ways of cataloging and archiving the collected and indexed material. 

In 2019, Simone Lässig, director of the GHI, in cooperation with Lehmkuhl, established the project “German Heritage in Letters.” Coordinated by Atiba Pertilla, the objective was to expand the Gotha collection by collecting letters in the United States that were sent from the German states. The project was funded by the Year of German-American Friendship 2018/2019 and the “Wunderbar Together” campaign, an initiative of the Foreign Office of Germany to celebrate the historical ties between the United States and Germany. Using social media platforms to promote the project, together with libraries, historical societies, and “citizen scholars,” thousands of letters were collected, digitized, transcribed, and translated. By bringing together letters from the U.S. and the German states, scholars will have the opportunity to study networks of families and to examine relational perspectives: emigrants and those who stayed at home; women and men; young and old; and the contrasting experiences of Jews, Catholics, and other religious groups. 

The Story Goes on: Relaunching “German Heritage in Letters” into “Migrant Connections”

How can we create spaces where researchers and citizen scholars meet in a transatlantic setting and likewise guarantee that citizen scholars receive the recognition that they deserve? To achieve these goals, the Digital History Team at the GHI are currently transforming the former project site of “German Heritage in Letters” into an online portal called “Migrant Connections.”2 The objective of “Migrant Connections” is to expand the collection of letters with other sources such as poems or diaries, to modify (re-)search functionalities of the digital archive, and to allow participants to share their work as citizen scholars, contributors, and researchers. Transcription is an intellectual, labor-intensive, and time-consuming process that should be recognized. The next sections will briefly describe two transcription examples from our work with historical societies and our interns at the GHI to show the opportunities of methods from Digital History such as web-publishing and deep learning platforms. 

“Transcription Tuesdays” by the German Society of Pennsylvania

While Helbich’s project used newspapers in the twentieth century as platforms to ask people to share their letters, we can now use social media platforms as well as the existing networks of historical societies to raise public awareness for the project. This allows us to reach out to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic to help us collect, transcribe, and translate the sources. 

One of the historic societies we are working with is the German Society of Pennsylvania (GSP). Founded in 1764, the GSP started as a society to support immigrants in need. It later turned into an institution that supported activities to preserve and promote German traditions and customs. As a historical society, education has been a strong focus of the GSP for much of its existence. In cooperation with the GHI, the GSP has expanded its course options by offering online German script courses. Led by librarian Bettina Hess, the GSP hosts “Transcription Tuesdays,” where people come together to transcribe letters digitized from the library’s own collections.3  These groups use the current project site to read the images of the letters. With the Scripto plugin (Omeka), users can turn the letters into machine-readable text, create metadata and add further biographical information.4 Citizen Humanities initiatives such as the GHI’s collaboration with the GSP have brought together academic and non-academic groups to collect and transcribe hundreds of “hidden” sources.  

Figure 1: shows the scanned image as well as metadata of a letter written by Emma Hilgard to her brother Henry (Heinrich) Villard. The letter was sent eight months after the Unification of Germany (1871) from Bavaria to the United States. 

Transkribus and Internships at the GHI 

Some of the letters we receive are bigger collections of individual authors or families such as, for instance, the “Hilgard collection” (see figure 1). When Emily Kuehbauch, a student of Digital Methodology (University of Mainz), did her internship at the GHI, we asked her to use Transkribus, a platform for AI-powered text recognition and transcription, to assist her in transcribing the collection. Emily did not have much experience with either deep learning methods or reading old German script. When I asked Emily about her experiences of working in the project, she said that the Transkribus was very intuitive, and apart from improving her abilities in reading German script and digging into deep learning methods, she got very interested in the hidden stories in these letters. Emily will now use the machine-readable collections – that she has created – for her MA project to examine the role of women as readers and writers in German-American letters. 

Figure 2: Here you can see the stage in the celebration hall of the German Society of Pennsylvania.

Why do we Need to add other Stories to the Bibliography of German-American History? 

Since January 2021, I have been a member of the Library Committee of the Horner Library of the German Society of Pennsylvania. At the beginning of August, 2021, I visited the building of the GSP and upon entering the large celebration hall, I was not surprised at all. As you can see on the image (figure 2), there is a painting of Washington in the center of the stage next to statues of Goethe and Beethoven. As I walked through the hallways and up to the stairs on my way to the library, I only found statues and portraits of other famous and powerful man such Carl Schurz or Alexander von Humboldt. Only when I entered the library and “distant-read” the titles and authors of works did I find the names of some women (or “unknown” men). You will not be surprised if I tell you that the majority of works about the history of German-American migration have centered on successful intellectual and political men. The problem is that what has happened and how we memorialize it are still shaped by patriarchal systems. In other words, the issue is that these sources already exist and they may be “hidden” in our repositories. There are records such as letters, advertisements, poems, or journals that could tell us about other migration experiences. However, they are not necessarily the easiest sources to find in traditional archives or libraries – or the celebration halls of cultural societies. 

Letters, for instance, written by women, are irreplaceable because only they can provide more information about many aspects of the emigration of six million Germans to North America: about their wishes and hopes, difficulties and successes, impressions, and prejudices. This is why the aim of “Migrant Connections” is not only to find material for researchers, but also to save a valuable cultural asset that is acutely threatened in view of the constant losses caused by death and relocations, so that we can start to deconstruct patriarchal epistemologies through public participation. By bringing together different sources from different groups, we want to create a research lab for citizen scholars, students, and researchers to analyze cultural heritage data. The real benefits of Citizen Humanities projects such as “Migrant Connections” is to collectively create and preserve cultural heritage beyond academia and libraries, to learn about past migrant realities and to get training in reading different scripts as well as in data, algorithmic, tool, and interface criticism.

#hiddenstories #digitalhistory #citizenhumanities

The “Migrant Connections” Team at the GHI

Daniel Burckhardt, Technical Developer

Katharina Hering, Digital Librarian

Jana Keck, Coordinator “Migrant Connections”

Emily Kuehbauch, Student Researcher

Simone Lässig, Director

Atiba Pertilla, Coordinator “Mobile Lifeworlds in German-American Letters” (former: “German Heritage in Letters”)

This article is licensed under the following license: CC-BY 4.0. When reusing, please include the attribute rel=”canonical” in the link to the original post!

How to cite this Article: Keck, Jana (2021): „Introducing ‚Migrant Connections:‘ A Digital History Research Hub for Learning and Participatory Activity by/for/with Citizen Scholars“. In: Kolodzie, Lisa, Schumacher, Mareike, Seltmann, Melanie and Brenn, Daniel (eds.): Public Humanities. https://publicdh.hypotheses.org/353.

  1. For a more detailed description of Helbich’s efforts, see: http://www.auswandererbriefe.de/sammlung.html#Enstehung []
  2. The current project site “German Heritage in Letters” will remain active until we launch “Migrant Connections” in fall 2021. The letters project will also receive a new name: “Migrant Connections: Mobile Lifeworlds in German-American Letters.” []
  3. If you are interested in “Transcription Tuesdays,” visit: https://www.germansociety.org/classes/transcription-tuesdays/# []
  4. Here you can create an account to become a transcriber: https://germanletters.org/scripto []

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