Why do we engage Citizen Archivists?

Today’s post comes from Pamela Wright, National Archives Chief Innovation Officer.

Earlier this week we posted an invitation to help transcribe records in our holdings and it has sparked some thoughtful conversations about the role of crowdsourcing at the National Archives. For this specific crowdsourcing campaign we featured several “missions” that we wanted citizen archivists to help us with over the course of the week, inspired by the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service. One of these missions encouraged the public to help make slave ship manifests more accessible by transcribing printed and handwritten words to make them machine readable (and therefore searchable). This mission connects people intimately with documents related to slavery, including this country’s difficult histories surrounding labor, exploitation, and who gets to determine value. We wanted to take this opportunity to thank those who commented on this initiative for your feedback about the program and the way that we promote it. We strive to be inclusive and to nurture our community—your input helps us do that better.

This specific campaign is not a one-time project,  but part of a larger, long-term strategic goal to engage people with American history through public contributions to the National Archives Catalog. We’d like to provide some context around why we put our efforts and resources into nurturing a community of volunteers to participate in extending our mission by transcribing, tagging, and commenting on records.

As the nation’s record keeper, the National Archives is responsible for making the records of the U.S. Government available to the public. We have more than 13 billion pages of records in our holdings and are adding hundreds of millions of pages to that total every year. Processing, scanning, and inputting these records into our online Catalog is a vast and endless task for our relatively small staff (about 500 National Archives staff are responsible for describing and adding millions of digitized pages to the Catalog each year).

Our Citizen Archivist volunteer program enhances the amazing work our staff do every day across the country. In April 2010, the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, introduced the concept of the Citizen Archivist as a way to connect people with our mission. Our Open Government Plan further outlines initiatives that increase public engagement with the work of the National Archives. These  approaches leverage the collaborative power of the Internet to make more records accessible to the American people as well as increase the visibility and value of archives. Archivists on staff process and provide access to records that Citizen Archivists can further enhance through tagging, transcribing, and commenting.

The National Archives values the work of Citizen Archivists who dedicate their time to engaging with our holdings and help others to find and understand records. Volunteers work together to help transcribe difficult-to-read handwriting, making these records more accessible to everyone. Citizen Archivist activities also help people develop or deepen personal connections to primary sources. People with firsthand knowledge of records help contribute to and preserve cultural heritage. Citizen Archivists have also found value in engaging online with the records in a way that would not ordinarily be possible. They may not be able to visit a research room to handle the documents, or to pursue a career as an archivist, but they are empowered to participate in and contribute to the mission of the National Archives.

We believe that Citizen Archivist activities result in more inclusive and expansive service to the public. The records in the National Archives tell the nation’s stories, document the actions of government officials and hold them accountable, and confirm the rights guaranteed to individuals. National Archives staff protect the records and make them accessible; what the public will do with them is limitless.

Manuscript entitled “13 Months in the U.S. Sanitary Commission,” by Jas. V. Hammer, Field Relief Agent, Baltimore, MD. National Archives identifier 24325411

6 thoughts on “Why do we engage Citizen Archivists?

  1. How do I become a volunteer from Ohio? Brenda Murphy

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  2. Ok, this is an absolutely beautiful project. I would love it if they were transcribed and searchable. It would be really interesting from a genealogy point of view 🙂

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