Yes, Wikipedians Scan

David Ferriero’s recent post over on the AOTUS blog made mention of NARA’s Wikipedia ExtravaSCANza in the context of a discussion of the “Yes We Scan” initiative and a broader digitization strategy. I want to take the opportunity to recap the citizen archivist scanning the National Archives has been hosting for Wikipedians in recent months.

As the Wikipedian in Residence at the National Archives, my goal is to find new and interesting ways for Wikipedians to help improve public information about and access to NARA’s holdings. In the past few months, we have experimented with a variety of ways of doing this, but one of the most fun has been the hosting of meetups at the National Archives.

Perhaps you don’t imagine Wikipedians—members of the community of thousands of volunteers building the most comprehensive encyclopedia in history—as the type to be involved in real-world activism, but I would like to convince you otherwise. Wikipedians spend their free time contributing to an encyclopedia because they are driven by knowledge and volunteerism, which makes them perfect partners for the National Archives.

In August, I organized our first Wikipedia event at Archives II.  This “backstage pass,” attracted more than a dozen Wikipedians for a tour into the stacks, and a brief foray into the Still Pictures Research Room to scan or edit. We produced more than a hundred scans in only two or three hours, including a photo of “Nicole,” who has her own article now.

Scanning in August, 2011. Credit: Jarek Tuszynski, CC-BY-SA

For our next event at Archives II, David Ferriero headlined the backstage pass meetup held on October 8, which drew over 30 participants. This time, we again had volunteers briefly digitizing. With so many more participants, we spread out into the Still Pictures, Moving Images, and Textual Research Rooms, which added to the complexity and may have actually reduced our productivity.

David Ferriero speaks to Wikipedians (October, 2011). Credit: Carl Lindberg, CC-BY-SA

In November, we hosted the first known Wikipedia meetup to board Air Force One! That is, the first Wikipedia event at a NARA facility outside the DC area was hosted by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library. On November 19, about 10 Wikipedians enjoyed a tour of the grounds (and AF-1) and archives, and then held an “editathon” focused on the Reagan–Gorbachev summits.

Editathon at the Reagan Presidential Library (November, 2011). Credit: Stusviews, CC-BY-SA

Finally, I wanted to organize one last event before the end of my stint here. One type of feedback that I’d gotten consistently from participants was that once they went into the research rooms, they wished they had been able to spend more time to spend with the actual documents and scanning. January 4th through 7th we held the Wikipedia ExtravaSCANza.  The idea was simply to meet in the Still Pictures Research Room and sit around a table scanning, from Wednesday through Saturday.  Participants could come when they like. I picked a theme for each day: NASA, women’s history, Chile, and battleships.

I had the privilege of spending 18 hours in the research room over the 4 days, with a mostly different group each time (though kudos go to the participants who came two or even three days!)—including many longtime Wikipedians, a couple of University of Maryland library school students, and even a brand new Wikipedian who took the Chinatown bus down from New York City before ever having edited an article. We produced over 500 original scans and over 40 GB of data in high-resolution TIFFs.

Why all the scanning, and what does it have to do with Wikipedia? Sometimes, going through a box in the National Archives can be awe-inducing—every document looks iconic, but you know few people have ever had the ability to see it. I had this feeling many times over during our scanathons.  We’re doing our part to put a small dent in the enormous backlog of materials to be digitized. I hope more of you will get involved, too.

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