About twenty or so people are standing in a circle in the middle of a coffee shop in Royal Oak...one of Detroit's suburbs. You could easily mistake them for a group of tourists. Every single one of them has a camera – either in their hand, or around their neck.
But they're not tourists. Most of them have lived in Royal Oak for years. They're all members of an online photo sharing website called FLICKR. Within the website, you can create groups for specific kinds of photos - like funny pet pictures or abandoned buildings. This particular group is for all things Royal Oak. It's the first time they're meeting in person. So, after a round of introductions...they head out onto Main Street with their digital cameras and start snapping away. Some take pictures of dogs, others take pictures of people. FLICKR user CJ Peters goes for architecture:
"Around here, there's so many interesting buildings, great houses..and I'll see something and I'll just snap a picture of it."
But Peters wouldn't consider himself a historical photographer, someone who goes around and documents his neighborhood.
"That's impressive sounding," interjects Peters.
But then, he gives the idea a minute to sink in. He's fairly certain most people – including himself – don't think about making a historical record when they take a photo of an old building or a house, but...
"To some extent," says Peters, "that's what we're doing. Especially in these neighborhoods where a lot of the old houses are getting torn down. Inevitably something that you shoot isn't going to be there in 5, or 10, 15 years. So yeah, I guess we should think of ourselves as amateur historians."
Or what Kristin Szylvian would call amateur public historians. She's a professor of Public History at Western Michigan University:
"Yes, in the words of historian Carl Becker, every man is his own historian. And I think that that's one of the most important attributes or characteristics that the public history movement has to offer."
In its broadest sense, public history is history written about and sometimes by the public. And she says one of the best ways the public can contribute is by documenting their own lives using the internet.
Joey Harrison's been using FLICKR to upload some of his mom's old photos:
"I posted a picture of my mom's taken in 1951 of a little boy that was helping my mom out with some painting."
"And," continues Mark VanderMaas, "the caption said neighborhood boy – Billy Vandermaas – hung out with us as we sandpapered and painted on this hot summer day...and I'm looking at this picture, and it's my dad! It was just a complete shock."
Mark Vandermaas hadn't been looking for photos from his past that day. He had just been mindlessly surfing the site like he always does. And then – in an instant - when he stumbled on that picture of his dad taken over 50 years ago – his personal family history became a little richer.
That's one of the beauties of online photo sharing sites, according to William Turkel. Turkel is a professor of history at the University of Western Ontario. Not only do sites like FLICKR allow you to digitally archive your personal photos – your own family history, as it were. But, he says, historians are discovering the enormous potential photo sharing website have for archiving history in general:
"Historians have been defining themselves in terms of their limited access to things," says Turkel. "They pride themselves on being able to reconstruct stories based on incomplete records. As a profession, we have to re-think what it means when we have this culture of abundance. This entire historical record. It becomes possible to ask new questions. New kind of process."
That's not to say people should stop storing their pictures in photo albums and shoe boxes. It's just that the photos have the potential to do so much more when they're shared online, rather than gathering dust in a shoe box somewhere in your attic.