During the New Deal of the 1930s, the Works Progress Administration hired writers to document history across the United States. The best-known effort collected oral histories of former slaves. Those interviews became the bedrock of research for decades, contributing to a reinterpretation of slavery that took place from the 1950s to the 1980s, says William G. Thomas III, a historian at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln.
Mr. Thomas sees something similar as possible today. He and others are trying to build a movement to gather “the people’s history.” And their project could spawn a new model for massive open online courses, or MOOC’s.
Since 2010, scholars and students at Nebraska and at James Madison University have organized a series of “History Harvests”—community events where families share their artifacts and stories with students, who document and digitize them. The idea is to make visible histories and materials that otherwise would be largely invisible, and to share them more broadly online. Scholars benefit, and so do students, who learn to apply their disciplinary skills in real-world situations.