Crowdsourcing Anabaptist history?

I’m teaching two digitally focused courses this semester at West Chester University, Introduction to Digital Humanities and the upper level history election, Digital History. In both courses, my students spend a lot of time looking at existing digital projects and learning how to analyze and evaluate them, not unlike a book review. This is a great opportunity not just for my students—but for me—because I get to learn about cool digital projects and be inspired by them.

One of my favorite genres of digital projects is crowdsourced public history, in which public users—the people out there on the internet—contribute their knowledge, skills, and labor to a greater understanding of history.

The Mennonite Church Archive already participates in a crowdsourced project by sharing some of its photographs on Flickr Commons, the wing of the Yahoo-owned photo sharing service through which cultural heritage institutions share copyright-free images, allowing users to add tags to photographs or identify individuals pictured. Wouldn’t all these great photographs of 1960s VSers and “Bean Blossom Wayfarers” be even better if we knew who was in them? As a frequent student of the material culture of the Anabaptist traditions, these photographs are an amazing resource for tracking changes of fashion among church members (note when the head coverings come off), analyze the introduction of cultural objects like musical instruments, and study other visual elements of the cultural tradition.


Figure 1. First group of Mennonite Volunteers (VSers) to serve in Rocky Ford, Colo. at the Pioneers Memorial Hospital. They gather informally for a period of relaxation and sharing after a hard day at the Hospital. 1965. Mennonite Board of Missions Photograph Collection from Rocky Ford and Colorado from 1961-65. IV-10-7.2 Box 3 Folder 18, Photo #8. Mennonite Church USA Archives -Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana.


Figure 2. Bean Blossom Wayfarers. Mennonite Board of Missions Photographs. IV-10-7.2. Box 7, Folder 3, Photo 9. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Elkhart. Elkhart, Indiana.

Other successful crowdsourced humanities projects include those that let volunteers transcribe primary sources, such as handwritten nineteenth-century diaries and letters, menus, and all sorts of government documents. These work in a twofold way: first, volunteers interested in these historical materials provide labor to assist cultural heritage organizations in the essential process of making their documents machine-readable, and thus searchable through databases and search engines. Second, the institutions gain engaged community members who are using and thinking about their archival materials.

Another type of crowdsourced project asks contributors to share their knowledge and stories in order to add to a body of knowledge and cultural heritage. Wikipedia may be the best-known example, with its volunteer force of editors who continually work to create and improve encyclopedia entries. Public history projects have also captured the stories of those affected by Hurricane Katrina, crowdsourced location-based media by pinning it to a world map, or harvested stories of quilts (a personal favorite of Anabaptist Historian’s resident quilt expert).

So, what does this mean for Anabaptist historians? How can the traditional venues of both religious and cultural history harness the power of the crowd? In some ways, Anabaptist genealogists have long been engaged in crowdsourcing, contributing their knowledge of extensive family trees and long-lost details harvested from cemetery headstones or European church record books. The Swiss Anabaptist Genealogy Association’s extensive databases attest to this. It also demonstrates the enthusiasm of the community interested in Anabaptist history. Those same community experts could lend a hand by identifying and tagging photographs on Flickr, transcribing handwritten documents hidden in archives, and recording stories about their quilts. The Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO)’s community portal could become a real community portal where participants could suggest new articles and additions to existing ones, rather than a blank page. What about a digital project that allows Pax Program participants to upload their stories of doing voluntary service during the Vietnam War or Mennonite Central Committee volunteers to share accounts of their service?

These ideas all have a low barrier to entry in terms of the technology and cost required for digital history projects. But all of them require cultivating an enthusiastic community of participants. No digital humanities project can survive on the motto of “if you build it they will come.” But the enormous benefit of an engaged community ensures not just the longevity of a digital project, but a sustained commitment from an active public who wants to interact with an institution’s collections.

Oral History for the “Quiet in the Land”

Janneken Smucker

I’ve read with interest the posts here from my colleagues  Ben Goossen on Digital History and Ted Maust on Public History, topics very near and dear to me in both my scholarship and teaching. Ben outlines some of the facets of digital history, particularly how digital technologies can provide increased access to historical sources. Ted considers what public history—historical interpretation that in some way engages with the general public rather than to fellow academic historians—can do and has done for Anabaptists. I’d like to draw on these threads by exploring the role of oral history, and how oral history poses particular opportunities and challenges for those of us conducting history among Anabaptist groups.

Much of my scholarly energy in recent years has involved oral history in one capacity or another. As a young historian working on contemporary history topics from the 1970s and ‘80s, it was a natural fit. Interviews with living subjects served as excellent primary sources for my senior seminar paper at Goshen College, about the origins of the Women’s Studies program at GC. When I began studying quilts from an academic perspective, my first paper was based on an oral history interview I conducted with my elderly grandmother about the quilts she and her Amish-Mennonite peers made as young women in the 1920s in eastern Ohio. I now regularly teach with oral history, working with my students to create digital public history projects, interpreting and providing access to archival oral history interviews, by building classroom/archive partnerships that take advantage of open source technologies.

Members of the Anabaptist faith have long valued oral tradition, as the stories from our ancestors have been a source of faith. So-called ethnic Mennonites remember the challenges of our forebearers as stories and folklore are passed down from one generation to the next. Perhaps Martyrs’ Mirror, with its tales of courage and conviction, is the ultimate collection of Anabaptist oral tradition. Books like Martyrs Mirror, Amish Roots, and MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions collect and interpret some oral accounts that have resonance to many members of the Anabaptist tradition.1


Sons of Maeyken Wens search for the tongue screw used to silence her among her ashes, Antwerp, 1573. Engraving by Jan Luiken in Martyrs Mirror, v. 2, p. 661 of Dutch edition. Source: Rijksmuseum via GAMEO

But oral history itself is a historical method distinct from oral tradition. Oral history really only became possible in our current understanding of the term with the availability of audio recording technologies, which enabled the interview—the dialogue between the interviewer and narrator—to become permanently fixed as a primary source. One of the most straightforward definitions of oral history comes from Donald Ritchie: “An oral history interview generally consists of a well-prepared interviewer questioning an interviewee and recording their exchange in audio or video format.  Recordings of the interview are transcribed, summarized, or indexed and then placed in a library or archives.”2

My brief search for Mennonite (the wing of Anabaptism I most closely identify with) oral histories turned up archived collections of interviews (among others) with Russian Mennonite immigrants, World War I conscientious objectors (with digitized audio!), Mennonite women from Manitoba discussing their childbirth experiences, and video interviews collected by the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Interests. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of the oral history collections I discovered are from Canadian organizations or are interviews conducted with individuals from Russian-Mennonite backgrounds. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I surmise that Amish and “Old Mennonites”—the really quiet of the land—have been less keen on recording oral histories. Maybe individual life stories have seemed not to reflect the humility for which these groups have historically striven, or members of these less worldly affiliations have been reluctant to record their stories using modern technologies for the permanent record. In my own research, I’ve encountered this. What if the narrator is from a plain community and does not feel comfortable with the research, the technology, the release forms, or the archive? Can we still do oral history?

Two current tenets of oral history which squarely place this methodology in relationship with public history are “informed consent” and “shared authority.” By informed consent, oral historians mean that the interviewee/narrator has a full understanding of the purpose and potential uses of the interview. They should understand that they are “on the record” while being able to restrict aspects of their interview for future use if necessary. Typically, this is handled through a release form granting the interviewer permission to record, use, and/or archive the interview. Historian Michael Frisch popularized the term “shared authority” in relationship to oral and public history, suggesting that historians are not the sole arbiters of historical interpretation, but instead share that authority with those from the public with whom we dialogue and engage—especially those sharing their testimony through oral history interviews.3

Amish Country Quilts

Carol Highsmith, Amish Country Quilts, c. 1990. Photographs in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division.

When I was conducting fieldwork among Amish quilt entrepreneurs, I was hesitant to pull out legal forms for these women to sign, let along my fancy little digital audio recorder. Although I strived to make these informants feel comfortable speaking with me, I don’t think I did particularly well with “informed consent” guideline. I typically told the proprietor of a shop I was a student studying quilts (true, even though I was a PhD student, who hoped to eventually translate my research into a book) and asked if I could ask her a few questions. These women (and the occasional man) were usually quite willing to talk. They were accustomed to tourists asking lots of questions about quilts, and they typically had an almost scripted answer to my questions about how the design, production, and sale of quilts functioned. I did not quote these informants directly in my text, since I did not record the conversations, although their responses certainly served as evidence that informed my interpretation of the subject. In the endnotes to my book, I refer to these non-interviews as “conversations” rather than as “interviews.”4

In 2003, when Emma Witmer, the Old Order Mennonite proprietor of the longest operating quilt shop in Lancaster County, agreed to give an interview for Q.S.O.S. – Quilters Save Our Stories, an oral history project of the non-profit Quilt Alliance, she declined to be recorded or have her photograph taken. But she agreed to tell her story, presumably feeling informed and giving consent, as she signed a release form. Interviewer Heather Gibson took notes rather than record the audio, and the online “transcript” begins with the disclaimer: “notes from the interviewer—Emma Witmer is an Old Order Mennonite. The interview was recorded on pencil and paper at Emma Witmer’s request. Portions of the interview that were not recorded verbatim are noted in brackets. There are no photographs.” With this note, can we even consider this interview as “oral history,” at least based on Ritchie’s definition that an oral history must be recorded in audio or video? I drew on this interview extensively in my research on the origins of the quilt industry in Lancaster County, but is this as reliable of a source as I think it is since it is based on notes, which ultimately are an interpretation of the interview rather than the verbatim interview itself? Is it more or less reliable than the “conversations” I had with other shop owners?5

In contrast, one particular Amish informant was quite willing to go on the record, signing the forms and having his voice recorded. He knew I was writing about his father, an Amish businessman who bought quilts from his co-religionists and sold them to New York quilt dealers. He was the expert. I was the student. Here I think I came close to achieving the elusive “shared authority,” with his interview completely transforming my understanding of the relationship of Amish individuals to the market for quilts. When I wrote articles drawing on what I learned from him, I sent him drafts, and he gave me feedback. I even invited him to attend my dissertation defense, where he engaged in the discussion along with my committee members (he continues to relish telling people about that momentous event).

Excerpt from interview with Benuel Riehl, conducted by Janneken Smucker, May 13, 2008.

Throughout my career as a historian, I am continually reminded of the power of the first hand accounts gained through oral history. But I worry about what interviews we might never have the opportunity to record because of the challenges of conducting interviews with some Anabaptist groups. I also fear for the collections of interviews that have been recorded—like the ones with Mennonite women about childbirth—but remain inaccessible, on analog cassette tapes in faraway archives. Too often oral history projects result in amazing resources that are virtually undiscoverable, although new technologies have made it increasingly affordable and possible to provide access. And most importantly, we need to find ways to ensure that we as historians freely share our authority with our publics, listening not only as a way to elicit details of the past, but also as a way to check our perceived expertise as historians.

  1.  Thieleman J. van Braght, I. Daniel Rupp, and Thieleman J. van Braght, The Bloody Theatre, or Martyrs’ Mirror, of the Defenceless Christians: Who Suffered and Were Put to Death for the Testimony of Jesus, Their Savior, from the Time of Christ until the Year A.D. 1660 (Near Lampeter Square, Lancaster Co., Pa.: David Miller, 1837); John A Hostetler, Amish Roots: A Treasury of History, Wisdom, and Lore (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989); Ervin Beck, MennoFolk: Mennonite and Amish Folk Traditions (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 2004). 
  2. Donald A. Ritchie, Doing Oral History, 3rd edition (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2014), 1. 
  3.  Michael H Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990); Michael Frisch, “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back,” in Letting Go?: Sharing Historical Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia, Pa.; Walnut Creek: Pew Center for Arts & Heritage ; Distributed by Left Coast Press, 2011). 
  4.  See Janneken Smucker, Amish Quilts: Crafting an American Icon (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013). 
  5.  Emma Witmer, interview by Heather Gibson, October 20, 2003, Quilt Alliance, Quilters’ S.O.S.—Save Our Stories, Library of Congress, American Folklife Center,

Digital History: The German Mennonite Sources Database

By Ben Goossen

What does it mean to bring the “Anabaptist past into a digital century”? The subtitle of this blog includes a playful reference to the anti-modernist stance of many Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and other so-called Plain Peoples—as well as an acknowledgement of the widely-held stereotype that Anabaptists do not use technology or engage the modern world. On one hand, the mission of Anabaptist Historians parallels that of any historical organization, namely to uncover, interpret, and make accessible the records of bygone eras for twenty-first century audiences. Yet for scholars of Anabaptism, this task holds unique challenges as well as opportunities.


Documents in the German Mennonite Sources Database were collected during the research for Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton University Press, 2017)

“Digital History” is a practice that, over the past several years, has increasingly shaped the historical profession. In a narrow sense, Digital History refers to projects that primarily use digital tools to tell historical stories, such as animated maps, YouTube documentaries, or interactive wikis. Anabaptist-related efforts such as the extensive Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) or the Bearing Witness website, designed to collect stories of persecuted Anabaptists from around the world, fit this definition. At an even broader level, nearly all history done today is “digital” in some way. It is hard to imagine writing an article or reviewing a book without opening Google, consulting an online repository like JSTOR, or downloading an open-access journal. Sending emails, maintaining websites, and using search engines are all part of Digital History.

Some Anabaptist groups are today among the only populations that write history without digital tools. In the summer of 2016, when the Anabaptist Historians Editorial Board was starting this blog, one tough question was how to include conservative Amish and other historians who do not use the internet. Is it possible to represent the full spectrum of Anabaptist pasts and identities in a digital format? Or does the very nature of a blog preclude the participation and accurate representation of some groups? We tried to create a website defined by simplicity – a value with cachet in Anabaptist households and Silicon Valley alike – yet reaching conservative populations remains difficult. When communicating with one historian in the Weaverland Conference, for example, I copy and paste web text into my messages or send screenshots as attachments, since he uses email but no internet browsers.

In other circumstances, Anabaptist history can feel tailor-made for digital approaches. With a relatively small population – around two million members are active worldwide – major digital projects are more feasible than they would be for larger demographics. Anabaptism, as a religious movement, is also blessed with substantial institutional resources, including church libraries, denominational archives, and nongovernmental organizations. Many have already undertaken Digital History initiatives. And joining these is a vast webscape of informal Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, chat room support groups, and genealogical sites. Previous posts on this blog have begun a fascinating dialogue about the places where Anabaptist history happens, including discussions of the value of borderland perspectives, centralized archives, and public history. How can we think about cyberspace as a location of and platform for historical work?

Over the past seven years, I have been working on a large-scale digitization project, the German Mennonite Sources Database. Released in October and hosted online by the Mennonite Library and Archives in North Newton, Kansas, this is the largest digital repository of books and newspapers by or about Mennonites in Germany as well as one of the most complete collections on this subject anywhere in the world. The database spans the years 1800 to 1950 and includes approximately 100,000 pages of text, including thousands of books, pamphlets, newsletters, and articles. Its purpose is to make historical resources available to anyone who reads German and is interested in religious history. Readers will find documents pertaining to virtually every aspect of German Mennonite life, ranging from sermons and catechisms to texts on nonresistance, the draft, and Nazism. Some topics are expected, such as hymn selections and condemnations of oath swearing. Others less so – like an 1859 rumination on vampires in the world’s first journal of folklore.

The German Mennonite Sources Database began as a personal resource, growing out of research conducted for my book, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era, forthcoming in 2017 from Princeton University Press. As a history of Mennonites’ worldwide entanglement with German nationalism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chosen Nation required familiarity with a wide spectrum of issues, from congregational and institutional life to historical, educational, and mission activities, involvement in war and political movements, peace declarations, gender, genocide, and anti-Semitism. In archives across Europe and the Americas, I found myself digitizing dozens or sometimes hundreds of documents a day. The essential tools of the Digital Historian include a computer, cell phone, digital camera, and a bevy of cords, adapters, and USB sticks. My archival desks unfailingly resembled a crow’s nest of snaking wires and metallic boxes.

A major advantage of Digital History is its ability to make scarce resources widely available. Documents that might exist only in one or two places in the world become accessible to anyone with a modem. This has a democratizing effect, since travel to distant libraries or archives usually requires deep pockets or university support, while digital files can be downloaded from the comfort of home. With Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software and online translation services (some of which now use artificial intelligence), texts in German or other languages can be rendered quickly and with stunning accuracy into English. Still another advantage is that different researchers bring diverse perspectives to the same sources. Documents in the German Mennonite Sources Database, for instance, might find wide interest beyond my initial purposes – hopefully providing a basis for articles, dissertations, scholarly debates, and family research.


Warnings and Suggestions for Military Service, a handbook for Mennonite soldiers, is one of thousands of books, pamphlets, and articles now available via the German Mennonite Sources Database

Not all history is digital, of course, and not all Digital History is good. While open-access sites like the German Mennonite Sources Database are available to all, many research venues like or HeinOnline lock material that would be provided for free in physical libraries behind digital paywalls. In this age of uneven globalization, the web remains only partially worldwide, with internet unavailable to the earth’s most disadvantaged populations – those lacking power in both senses of the word. As Anabaptists, we are also attuned to the spiritual politics of the internet. Is it possible to use digital tools in ways that are constructive rather than damaging, uniting rather than alienating? Such questions resonate with current public debates about internet bullying, cyberterrorism, and fake news. Some plain Anabaptists find a solution in eschewing digital resources altogether.

Our challenge then, as Anabaptist historians, is to consider not only how to engage Digital History, but also how to do so responsibly. Can we find ways of digitizing library holdings that also increase donations and visits to physical locations? Can we build integrated networks to share data and exchange ideas without losing sight of the distinctive needs and identities within the Anabaptist church family? Perhaps we could take cues from the wonderful work already undertaken by friends and colleagues – such as the open access website of Anabaptist Witness, the database of Anabaptist-related websites hosted by Mennonite Church USA, or the breathtaking Mennonite Archival Image Database. The tools offered by Digital History are like any new resource. They invite us to explore and affirm their limitations, while also finding fresh ways of working together.

You can access the German Mennonite Sources Database here.

Thanks to John Thiesen and the Mennonite Library and Archives for hosting the German Mennonite Sources Database, as well as to Rosalind Andreas, Kevin Enns-Rempel, Rachel Waltner Goossen, Royden Loewen, Titus Peachey, John Roth, Astrid von Schlachta, and Paul Toews for their support.