Anyone Can Cook: AskHistorians and Engaging with History

One of the recurring themes of Clio's Current is history in the digital age. As the existence of our blog suggests, we are continually trying to map out the space historians occupy in 2014 where we are no longer restrained to the “real world.” The virtual world of the internet is a diverse, complex and often chaotic space. Our blog is a “work in progress” as we seek to define these new boundaries. Regardless, there will always be a responsibility for historians to communicate history to the public. This post examines one aspect of the new digital “tool set” of historians, how we use it to fulfil that responsibility, and the online community where historians of all stripes are doing the same: /r/AskHistorians.

Reddit is a popular website where the front page is a series of links submitted to the site by different users. They are pulled from “subreddits” which act as a central hub for information on a specific topic, for example, /r/canada has links about Canada, /r/pics has pictures, and /r/CanadaPolitics discusses Canadian politics, etc. (The naming convention of /r/abc comes from the subreddit's URL, which is always There are a group of defaults subreddits which all viewers of the site will see on their default “front page.” If you register as a user, you can post links to a subreddit and subscribe or unsubscribe to subreddits and customize your front page. If you were subscribed to /r/pics /r/canada, and /r/CanadaPolitics, you would only see links that other users have posted to them. If you want, you choose to only see the links that are submitted to one subreddit, such as just browsing /r/politics. As of this post, there are 386,502 subreddits! The community of “redditors” is vast and growing every day.

The /r/AskHistorians subreddit, as others have noted, is an invaluable subreddit for the historian in the digital age. They recently hit 250,000 subscribers, and just this past week on 7 March received half a million pageviews in a single day. They consistently have about 100,000 pageviews a day and an audience of some 50,000 readers. They are the 74th largest subreddit out of that 386,502.

AskHistorians is a worthwhile place to visit for a historian looking to interact directly with an interested and engaging audience. The subreddit operates using a fairly simple premise: you ask a question about history and someone posts an answer. Generally the subreddit's “flaired users” are encouraged to respond. These are posters who have proven they can contribute in-depth knowledge on a specific topic. Flaired users can be anyone. Some are amateur historians, or well-read undergraduate students, or published academics, or graduate students. There are over 400 of these flaired historical experts with an incredibly wide array of specializations.  The questions range from simple, to complex, to absurd, and after a while, repetitive. You can also be chosen (or volunteer) to host an “AMA” - Ask Me Anything – where readers pose questions to you or a group of flaired users with a similar focus. You can easily receive a hundred questions in a single day while doing an AMA.

Answering questions can sometimes be a matter of typing out the answer from memory, other times it might require pulling a book from your shelf, or if you're feeling particularly helpful, hunting down the appropriate academic article. Sources are not required in posts, but be prepared to provide them if asked. Our experience with answering questions on Reddit often highlights the value of digital sources. Online journal databases are invaluable to help answer more obscure and specific questions. Google Scholar is equally useful to hunt down historians' writings on a topic.

A recent question one of our authors answered is a good example of the site's value. A user requested information about their distant relative Frederick Stockley who served with the Newfoundland Regiment during the First World War.  A bare amount of information was provided: “Frederick Stockley was born in Wesleyville, Newfoundland, and joined the First Newfoundland Regiment when he was 19, in March of 1917. (Regiment # 3518) He was "killed in action" on March 11 of 1918.” The poster was curious – how did Stockley die in action outside of a major battle?

The first step was finding out if there was any other information about Frederick Stockley online. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission lists every soldier killed from the Commonwealth in the Great War.  Seeing that he was listed on the Beaumont-Hamel Memorial meant that Stockley had no known grave. The Canadian Virtual War Memorial also confirmed more details from the original post.  Meanwhile Canada at War provides a list of Canada's war dead and you can search by date. Looking up 11 March 1918 we see that two other Newfoundlanders also died that day. This implies that there was some sort of action on 11 March, but what was the Regiment doing?

Knowing little about the Newfoundland Regiment in the war, the next step was to look at G.W.L. Nicholson's Official First World War history. After downloading the PDF, a simple word search quickly found the relevant section on the Newfoundlanders on pages 507 to 510. Nicholson wrote that the regiment had been off the major front lines in the spring of 1918 and stationed in the relatively quiet area of Flanders near Ypres. It is only at this point that it occurred to us it might be worthwhile to search for the unit's war diary! Note: This should have been our first step. Research, of course, is rarely a straight line.

Many of the Canadian units' war diaries are online through Archives Canada, but not the Newfoundland Regiment which was not yet part of Canada (they joined in 1949). Luckily, another Google search revealed that the war diaries have been hosted by The Rooms, a Newfoundland Archives and Museum. Looking through the war diary, it says on 7 March 1918 the regiment moved from Steenvoorde to California Camp on the front lines north of Wieltje near Passchendaele and from there, two companies took up positions on the front lines, while two more were stationed in support at Mosselmarkt and another at "Bellevue," which is the Bellevue Spur, a low slope approaching Passchendaele. Another Google search revealed a few maps that gave a better idea of these locations and the front lines as of April 1918 that the Newfoundlanders were defending. As with all units, they were being cycled in and out of trench duty.

Though they were on a “quiet” stretch of front there was still danger for the soldiers of the Newfoundland Regiment. On 11 March 1918, the war diary reports that "on their right" C Company was shelled and casualties were "light.” The date matches Stockley's death (as well as his two comrades) and shelling from artillery fire could explain his lack of a known grave. All told, the war diary notes, from a week on the “quiet” front of Flanders, the Newfoundland Regiment suffered 1 officer and 11 other ranks killed, 1 “missing believed killed” and 54 wounded. Though there is no clear answer to how Frederick Stockley died, it is at least a good start that they could pursue further (if they are interested). At least we were able to say that Stockley likely died somewhere near the ruined village of Passchendaele in March of 1918, perhaps from enemy shelling. All it took was a half hour of reading and researching.

Now, some might see this brief foray into answering a stranger's question as a waste of time, or an incredibly simple task for a trained historian. Surely anyone could have taken the steps above to find out this information, it did not require writing a dissertation and earning a PhD in history. But in that answer are several important points about what it means to be a historian in the digital age.

First, historians are good at doing the grunt work of digging for knowledge. We knew what sort of sources would hold the answer to the question, where to find them online (and that they were online in the first place!), and we were able to quickly skim through official histories and war diaries to find the relevant details. Second, sometimes we are tasked with giving simple answers to simple questions. It's not always about overarching theoretical frameworks or evolving conceptions of gender, class, and regionalism. For most people history is about facts and historians are well-trained for finding them. We don't have to make everyone into academic historians, nor should we. Sometimes it's about deepening their knowledge of history a centimetre, rather than a metre.

Finally, the entire endeavour underlines the message of Pixar's film, Ratatouille : anyone can cook. As food critic Anton Ego realises at the end of the film, “I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau's famous motto, 'Anyone can cook.' But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist; but a great artist can come from anywhere.” So too can anyone become a historian, if properly encouraged. It is not our place to judge the value of historical knowledge to any individual, but to inform and support. Who knows what kernel or factoid will inspire?

Or, if you want a more academic perspective, take Carl Becker's famous 1931 presidential address to the American Historical Association, “Everyman His Own Historian” (excuse the gender discrimination!). He warned historians of taking the everyman for granted:

Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman.

AskHistorians is an important experiment surrounding history's place in the digital age and we urge historians to join it and share their informed knowledge of the past. And remember, there is no shame or waste in giving the easy answers and simple facts of history. Instead, let's embrace the power of the digital age in allowing historians to reach out to all sorts of people interested in history both great and small, general and specific. Like the classroom experience, it's incredibly fulfilling to share your knowledge of history with an individual. In 2014, you can do that from the comfort of your office with someone you will never meet a continent or world away.