Recently, NASA launched an online project called “Be A Martian.” At first glance, this website is a highly sophisticated public education tool that creates an online experience to connect the public with NASA’s mission. On closer inspection, this is also an important crowdsourcing project. The public is invited to participate as “citizen scientists” by aligning Mars imagery and counting craters. The Martian Map room is an intriguing interface where the public is invited to actually add value to the vast amount of data from several Mars missions. Do you see where I’m going with this?
While citizen science isn’t new, we are only now starting to create online platforms for citizens to make substantive contributions, regardless of location. The U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) North American Bird Phenology Program has 1,754 online volunteers who have transcribed 228,479 bird migration cards. The collection contains six million paper migration cards, representing the contributions of citizen scientists in the late 19th and 20th centuries. The USGS Staff have developed a program to tap the enthusiasm and willingness of 21st century online citizen scientists to transcribe this data, which scientists are now analyzing to see how climate change affects migration. This is an example of citizens contributing in very interesting ways, ways in which I can see “citizen archivists” contributing to our mission.
At the National Archives and Records Administration, we have no shortage of paper records to digitize or transcribe. The vast quantity and characteristics of our records create many challenges for us to make these accessible online. However, I believe we need to rethink our traditional approach (professional archivists must do everything) to providing access, in favor of a new approach that utilizes the collaborative power of the internet.
All of my years in libraries convinces me that we learn so much more about our collections when someone makes use of the materials and helps us better understand and then describe what we have. When I was at the New York Public Library, T.J. Stiles was working on his masterpiece on Cornelius Vanderbilt, the First Tycoon, using the library’s collection. His discoveries and insights into the materials enhanced our own understanding of what we were housing. T.J. Stiles is a good example of a professional who also contributes as a “citizen archivist.”
In our Open Government Plan, we describe how we will develop initiatives to increase public engagement in our mission. I believe that by designing platforms that make adding real value to our work intriguing, easy, and fun, we can cultivate both professional and nonprofessional “citizen archivists.”
Similar to how many scientific functions are not appropriate activities for citizen scientists, many of our traditional archival roles may not be appropriate for citizen archivists. We will work to find suitable opportunities for public projects that will add value to our work. In addition to helping us accomplish sizable tasks, engaging the public as citizen archivists can also help us achieve important public education goals. Through citizen archivist projects, we can increase public knowledge of our work as well as inspire future generations of archivists.
What types of citizen archivist projects are possible?
We don’t completely know yet. We need to articulate projects and narratives that will speak to those already interested in specific records and reach those who have a more general interest. Let’s start thinking outside the box and let our creativity spur innovation to help us achieve our mission. We have a lot of exciting work ahead of us.
In our Open Government Plan, we discuss developing an Archives Wiki, similar to the UK National Archives “Your Archives.” One reason I like this project is that individuals who have passion for certain groups of records can find their niche and contribute to our contextual understanding of records. Their passion and enthusiasm is shown in their willingness to contribute their expertise to increase our understanding.
Recently, a unique example of a passionate American was brought to my attention. Gutzon Borgulm, the sculptor who dedicated his life to creating our National Memorial, Mount Rushmore, also dreamed of creating a chamber carved into the granite mountain that would hold the documents and artifacts most central to American history. He envisioned a “Hall of Records” to be ornate and fitting for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Although his vision was not completely achieved, his unerring belief in the importance of our history and passion is to be admired.
Now, when I contemplate the Charters of Freedom in the Rotunda, I am inspired by Gutzon Borgulm’s vision and passion for commemorating our American democracy. I think about those who are passionate about our mission at the National Archives. We shouldn’t expect citizen archivists to build Mount Rushmore, but their contributions to our work can be real.
As a citizen archivist what kind of projects are you interested in?
For Further Information:
- NASA’s Be A Martian: http://beamartian.jpl.nasa.gov/
- North American Bird Phenology Program: http://www.pwrc.usgs.gov/bpp/
- UK National Archives “Your Archives”: http://yourarchives.nationalarchives.gov.uk/
- Mount Rushmore’s Hall of Records: http://www.nps.gov/moru/planyourvisit/upload/hall%20of%20records.pdf