June 30, 2017

History Unfolded’s project lead, Elissa Frankle, is leaving the Museum. She shares some reflections on her last day.

[Editor’s note: when you’re on the way out the door and you’re the project lead, they don’t give you a word count. I’m crying at my desk and have a lot to say to you all. Thanks for indulging me. -EF]

I’ve lived nine lives at the Holocaust Museum since I first arrived nine years ago, and I’m pretty sure this last one has been my favorite, thanks to all of you.

Elissa Frankle wearing a dress made of newspaper articles.

When life gives you newspapers, buy a newspaper dress.

When I came back to the Museum after graduate school, David Klevan, now History Unfolded’s education manager, had offered me a part-time position as a community manager on the Museum’s original citizen history project. More than its noble research question, that project had a bigger question to answer: would people outside the Museum, who hadn’t been trained as historians, be able to help the Museum answer real questions about history? You all are testament to the fact that the answer was a resounding YES.

It took five years from the summer David hired me to the time the Museum put a budget behind creating a real citizen history project. In that time, we learned so much: how to invite participants to do research with us, the kinds of tasks they would want to do, the amount of time that it takes to manage a community of citizen historians (note: Eric deserves all the chocolate and a beach vacation for how hard he works). Sometimes we find ourselves still pinching ourselves that it actually happened–and that we have the gift of nearly 7,000 people who believe in this project, too.

The quote I’ve had stuck in my head during these last few days as I’ve gotten ready to leave isn’t from a founding chairperson or a fellow museumer, but rather from Marcus Aurelius, early on in the movie Gladiator:

There once was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish… it was so fragile.

Friends, there once was a dream that was citizen history, whispered by technologists and educators in the halls of our offices across the street from the Museum building. It was a quiet dream, where we acknowledged that history is not complete, that it doesn’t take even a high school degree to take part in its discovery, and just as Marcus Aurelius dreamed of giving Rome back to her people, our small team dreamed of giving history back to all who would come to learn from it.

You are the realization of that dream. You are a greater community than I ever could have wished. I’m going to take some time to rest and recharge and get ready for my next job, and then I’ll become one of you, another researcher who loves the whooooosh of microfilm, the thrill of discovery, the arm-raising joy of finding out something we never knew before.

Just for fun, here are a few looks back at what came before.

My first tweet about History Unfolded, from the very beginning of the project:

A journey of 10,000 articles begins with 300.

That time David and I were on NPR:

The amazing day you filled in the whole map:

And from the way-old vaults, fresh-out-of-grad-school Elissa gives a five minute Ignite talk on delicious, delicious citizen history.

Thanks to David, Eric, Aleisa, and Michael for dreaming the big dream of citizen history together; thanks to Melanie, Han, Angela, Greg, Alison, Katie, David D, Maria, Barbara, Marisa, Anne, Gretchen, Sarah, and Danie for being the builders, researchers, designers, editors, writers, and project managers who made the dream a reality on the web. And thank you, teachers, students, professors, lifelong learners, and dearest friends: citizen history is only as strong as its humans, and we have been gifted with the greatest humans possible.

Three photos of David, Elissa, and Eric helping researchers at the MLK library use microfilm readers.

I may only be related to one of these people by blood, but the other two are my brothers in citizen history for life.

Yours in microfilm, now and forever,
Elissa Frankle