Education/News/August 2020/A picture is worth a thousand words: history students research pictures on Commons

A picture is worth a thousand words: history students research pictures on Commons

Author: Dr. Keren Shatzman – Wikimedia Israel

Summary: History students at the Kibbutzim College of Education researched and wrote about archival pictures on Wikimedia Commons. This is a new form of collaboration between Wikimedia Israel and an academic institution. Working on Commons has advantages when it comes to original research.

Background: In November 2018 Wikimedia Israel (WMIL) extracted around 28,000 public-domain photos from public and private archives in Israel and made these available on Wikimedia Commons. The photos all date to the end of the Ottoman Empire and British Mandatory Palestine, and feature snapshots of life in the Holy Land in the early 20th century before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.

The project: This treasure trove of pictures inspired a new kind of collaboration between WMIL and the Kibbutzim College of Education, Technology and the Arts, which specialises in teacher training, and is the largest academic college in Israel. Conceived by the head of the history department, Dr. Maayan Mazor, and college lecturer Dr. Michal Wasser, they developed a new course titled “A Picture is worth a thousand words”. The course’s focus is teaching students the essentials of historical research through active and experiential learning. The historical photos served as a starting point for the students’ research project. Many of the photos have very minimal information about their content and the context in which they were taken. The students worked in small groups of three or four, and after choosing which photos they would research, proceeded to locate and identify relevant and reliable sources about them. The research process often involved visits to archives, finding people connected to those appearing in the photos and conducting interviews with them, discovering new and original documents, and cross-referencing the information with relevant books, articles, and other published materials. A precis of the final research report was uploaded to the photo description on Commons, thus adding free knowledge about these historical documents.

Original research? Not a problem: Because most of the collaborations WMIL has with academic institutions focus on writing Wikipedia articles, these are therefore in principle limited to assignments that do not involve original research. In this new kind of collaboration, however, the original research was the main part of the assignment. As Wikimedia Commons is not subject to the same rules as Wikipedia, it was possible to use the platform in this project. The fact that students know that the product of the research will be published publicly adds to their motivation, while the content they add to the photo description is checked meticulously by the lecturer, ensuring the accuracy and quality of the work.

The project’s planned finale was supposed to be a grand event with an exhibition of the pictures and the student’s work. Due to the Corona crisis, a virtual exhibition was created instead – with the unplanned advantage of a permanent exhibition that is accessible to everyone. In general, students were enthusiastic about the assignment as well as the visibility of their research outcomes. The project will be repeated and expanded in the next academic year.