From Citizen Science to Citizen Humanities – 19th Century history in the digital age

Posted by ap507 at Jul 15, 2015 09:50 AM |
Dr Geoffrey Belknap explores ways in which members of the public can produce knowledge and participate in research

Think: Leicester does not necessarily reflect the views of the University of Leicester - it expresses the independent views and opinions of the academic who has authored the piece. If you do not agree with the opinions expressed, and you are a doctoral student/academic at the University of Leicester, you may write a counter opinion for Think: Leicester and send to

The questions of how, by whom and where science was done in the Victorian period – the century which brought us ‘modern’ science – is never going to offer straightforward answers. Science, and scientific authority was produced and reproduced everywhere – the lab, the home, the field, and institutions big and small. It was recorded in notebooks, developed on photographic plates, and published in letters, books and newspapers. With a widespread culture of collecting, experimentation, and observation – mediated through sources such as the 19th century periodical – who counted as a scientist in the Victorian period was up for grabs.

These are the questions that historians working in the English departments here at Leicester and Oxford University – and partnered with the Natural History Museum, Royal College of Surgeons and Royal Society on the AHRC funded project Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science in the 19th and 21st Centuries (ConSciCom) are trying to address. In order to think about who exactly could do Victorian science – and what the boundaries of their participation were – we are looking at the single most important site of production and reproduction of debate, observation and experimentation in the period: the scientific periodical.

This is a colossal task. Considering that the 19th century is the boom period in print history, there are tens of thousands of possible journal titles to investigate. Even after narrowing down to two genres of scientific journals – medicine and natural history – this leaves us with thousands of authors, illustrators and contributors located within hundreds of thousands of pages of images and text.

Fast forwarding through a couple of World Wars, the atom bomb and the moon landing to the 21st century, the question of who can participate in science is again being reconfigured through the production of digital platforms such as the Zooniverse project. Utilizing the crowd to produce reliable scientific data, the confines of scientific production are bursting open once again. With projects of astronomical proportion, the ‘Citizen Scientist’ is helping to identify new planets, taxonomize and discover British Orchids, and hunt for new particles, among numerous other projects. The basic premise of Zooniverse is that if you establish a straightforward task, and ask the crowd to act as the guardian of data reliability, anyone can be part of and produce science in the 21st century from the comfort of their laptop.

Our task as historians on this project has thus expanded even further – not only are we investigating the roots of participation in Victorian science through the periodical, but we are also looking to correlate this phenomenon of participation from the Victorian period through to the contemporary Citizen Scientist. This all begs the question, is the production of science less to do with the exercise of expertise cultivated through the university and the laboratory, and more to do with access to sites of communication and community building?

Our answer, so far (the project is set to finish in the autumn of 2017), has been to bring together periodical history and Citizen Science as both as tools and topics of research. In other words, rather than thinking exclusively about what the citizen can do for science, we are thinking about how we can bring together history, digital humanities and science to do Citizen Humanities.

Working with the Biodiversity Heritage Library (BHL) and Zooniverse, we have created Science Gossip – a platform which presents users with pages from Victorian natural history periodicals, and asks them a set of questions. Are there any illustrations, if so, where are they on the page and what kind of illustrations are they; does it illustrate a species; is an artist/engraver/printed attributed; and are there any associated key words to the image? Through this set of tasks – which will be compared to other users entries – we are creating data for history and science which would be impossible to produce with a lone, expert, scholar.

Having launched Science Gossip less than 6 months ago, 4,564 individuals have already classified over 94,000 pages. The metadata created for these pages will allow BHL users to search for images within their digitized sources – a function which has previously been limited or not possible. Not only will users be able to search for types of images associated with keywords, but botanists, zoologists, and any other interested party will be able to make targeted searches for images of a specific species, opening up a previously inaccessible source of information on historical taxonomy. The metadata will also uncover thousands of new artists and natural historians of the Victorian period, and help those of us working on the ConSciCom project figure out exactly who could write, illustrate and produce Victorian natural history.

Whether Citizen Humanities will ultimately prove effective for both historians and scientists is yet to be established. The hope, however, is that we can start thinking more critically about what it means to produce knowledge, and whether the group that we have typically defined as existing outside academia – the public – can not just be an audience but can become active participants in the framing and carrying out of new research.

Share this page: