How do you engage the community with history during the time of COVID and social distancing? As more of the population gets vaccinated and the country starts to open up, many historical institutions and organizations are itching to restart in-person programming and events. However, the pandemic and the shift to everything virtual opened a door to creatively exploring ways to get communities to participate in local history.
History’s Mysteries is a digital crowdsourcing partnership project between Weelunk, Archiving Wheeling, and the Ohio County Public Library, that solicits photo identification help from the Wheeling community. As the primary history collecting archive in the county, the Library has hundreds of photos of Wheeling people, places, and events that are unidentified. While these photos are important snapshots of Wheeling’s history, our knowledge is limited when they are unidentified. Once a month, we choose five photos based on a theme from the Library Archive to feature on Weelunk with an entry form where people can submit identification information.
Our two goals were: 1) to get photos identified and therefore enrich the historical record, and 2) to engage the local community in the history that it has created. The reason for including the community in this form of creating history is because “historians have an important job of verifying, analyzing, and interpreting history, but it is the entire community that is responsible for maintaining and expanding the stories, records, and narratives that create the foundations of their society. Sometimes history’s mysteries just need someone with the right key.” Through History’s Mysteries, people who had never stepped foot into the Library recognized their mother or grandmother online--in some cases, they were photos they had never seen before.
Expansion of the internet and digital technology has made it possible to reach a wider audience and engage with people who may not walk into the physical space of the Library. To increase our chances of identifications, we leveraged social media to get the project in front of as many people as possible. In addition, since many of the photos are older and therefore would only be able to be identified by the older population who is less likely to be on social media, the Library printed and distributed brochures with the photos for those who prefer paper. Not only does History’s Mysteries allow us to restore identities to the unnamed, but it educates the community on the resources and services the Library provides.
When we started this project, we told ourselves that even just one identification would make this project a success in our book. One identity, one story, one life remembered would be worth it. Yet, we are pleased to report that with three monthly editions of History’s Mysteries under our belt, we have identified twenty-eight people so far!
If you know anyone with connections to Wheeling, please forward them our History’s Mysteries Project--we are always trying to fill in the gaps!
Emma Wiley is the Preserve WV AmeriCorps member serving with Wheeling Heritage during the 2021-2022 program year.
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