Cultivating Citizen Archivists

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?

Mapping Mars

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? 


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14 thoughts on “Cultivating Citizen Archivists

  1. If NARA has tasks for volunteer types (whatever you choose to call them), what about trying to have NARA qualify as an Americorps location? There are plenty of recently graduated undergrads or even MLIS/MIS students who would jump at the chance to work at NARA for their first year out of school to get their feet wet. Further, these recent grads would likely bring relevant skills that could be put to good use. Another way to go with the ‘citizen archivist’ idea…

  2. Another way to approach the topic is not to try to predict or assess what people will want to do, but to provide them with a variety of tools and an open playing field and let them come up with their own projects. This is the approach proposed by Clay Shirky in his 2009 Gov 2.0 summit address: One of his points is that trying to predict or shape contributor outcomes discourages creativity, and hence limits participation. He concludes by stating that it’s clear that users of social software almost never do what the designers want or expect. And that’s if the application is a success. Failure is nobody uses it at all. Successful applications create surprises.

    While I think it’s reasonable to try to asses what kinds of activities people might want to do in order to build a system or workspace that supports those activities, I think it’s more important to build a virtual space that allows visitors to interact with the information NARA provides in whatever way they choose. I think that would be the approach that would most successfully maximize the contributions of the web’s collaborators.

    I also strongly support AC’s suggestion above, particularly if that can be implemented at all of NARA’s regional archives across the country and not just in the DC area.

  3. Thanks to Kate’s excellent blog,, the Shirky rules have become my mantra when it comes to crowdsourcing archives. Whether it was inadvertent or deliberate, the LOC’s successful Flickr project obeyed Shirky’s main rules – and now it is the standard-bearer for all efforts involving archives and crowdsourcing.

  4. NARA holds so many records that are precious to the American people and can be tied directly to individuals’ lives. These records can help build an understanding that archives are important to everyone and that everyone can play a role in their protection. From military and immigration papers, to records created by our government that profoundly influence how we live, NARA’s resources reflect America and can be tied directly to local communities. I would like to see this made more clear. Perhaps documents that are reflective of this idea can be put in a place on the NARA web site that encourages local communities to relate these materials directly to themselves. NARA’s documents can encourage citizens to explore resources in their own backyards, to bring them to local repositories, to talk about them collaboratively, and to build stronger archival collections locally. This will also help make the image of NARA as open, accessible, and part of our national heritage more profound.

  5. As a genealogist, I already volunteer my services to several organizations that pursue net based transcription projects. I would be most enthusiastic about assisting NARA with the same type of projects. As a full-time RVer, I have a lot of time to work on these projects, but seldom get near a NARA branch. Any work I do would have to be from digitized images posted on the web.

  6. I believe that the concept of the citizen archivist is critically important for the archival profession to embrace and to nurture, as I wrote about in a recent book. However, in terms of NARA, I guess I feel more inclined to see it become a proponent of archives for citizens, where accountability, evidence, and corporate and societal memory are more strongly emphasized. Transparency, collaboration, and participation are great goals, but I submit that the notion of “Collector in Chief” seems contrary to such concepts and more supportive of old, antiquated concepts that have plagued NARA for a long time. Appraisal is different than collecting, and appraisal is the responsibility of this pre-eminent archival program.

    Despite being a bit critical here, I am after all an academic, I applaud you opening up with a blog. Good luck with this!

  7. As a citizen, an historian, a civil servant, and a former NARA archivist, I applaud your efforts to tap into the public’s knowledge and passion for preserving American heritage. I don’t know that citizen archivist is the best term for this, because there are elements of a number of activities involved in what you’re advocating. Some have more of a link to the work that archival professionals do than other aspects. Perhaps Archives Associate or Archives Assistant might be a more generic term which would better capture what you intend. Whatever you call it, I support your effort.

    People approach history from multiple angles. Those of us who are civil servants know that the life cycle of records begins with the creation of a textual or audio-visual record by a government employee—people like you and I. Whether citizens eventually can see it and use it in their research depends on many factors, including its designation (temporary or permanent). You have some great guidance for federal records managers on your site but I wonder how many researchers click on it to gain insights into the appraisal and records management (RM) process and how NARA ends up with the records it accessions into its permanent holdings?

    In talking to academic historians, I’ve found that some don’t connect the dots in their own creation of personal or institutional records with how records management – especially management of electronic records — works within the government. Do you see value in putting up on your site a specially created brief overview of the life cycle of records for users of records, not just for creators of them? That might help outsiders understand why, as you recently said, it’s what happens to electronic records that keeps you up at night.

    Hard copy or electronic, the more context that is preserved, the more a citizen can learn from a record. But it’s here that citizens also can provide assistance to NARA, especially in the area of photographs. In talking to people about this, I often use the image of boxes of photographs with few or no captions that one finds tucked away in a house once owned by a deceased, distant relative. Some photos may picture familiar faces but if the people who took the photos didn’t provide detailed information about them, you can’t know when the events occurred and who all the people pictured are. Useful contextual information is lost.

    It’s here that the existence of someone else in the family who knows who is pictured and why the images matter becomes important. That’s a role which citizen associates of the National Archives – helpful and knowledgeable members of the broader American family — can fill by participating in crowd sourcing. They may have information about people and events pictured in government photographs that NARA holds but for which it lacks full caption information. (During my career at NARA, I processed the WHCF: TR collection at what now is NLRN. Presidents touch the lives of many Americans in their travels, there are some great stories in that series from the people in towns visited by one of them.)

    I also focus on photos and context because like me, my father was a civil servant. He was a federal employee during the 1950s and 1960s and I know the identities of many people with whom he once worked. If you had photos of them in your accessioned material, I could help identify them through crowd sourcing. There are many citizens out there who could provide similar assistance.

    With the use of digital cameras, photography in the federal agencies most likely has become less and less centralized. Appraising through the Office of Primary Responsibility only the audio-visual records created by an official photographer may not capture all images of potential value to future researchers. So you probably already are extending your RM outreach to federal employees and their agencies to ensure that metadata is captured at the beginning of the life cycle of digital photographic records. But for older photos for which this was not done at the beginning of the life cycle, I can see great benefits from posting photos for which knowledgeable citizens, including former federal employees and their families, can provide interesting and useful information at the end of the life cycle.

  8. This are outstanding ideas that will [help] all of the nation’s citizens understand that the documents and other national treasurers protected by the National Archives truly belong to them.

  9. These are exciting times for public involvement with documentary history. In addition to scientific transcription projects like the USGS NABPP, Herbaria@Home, and the new JISC grant award for digitizing Royal Navy logs, we’re seeing development of public transcription projects for the US War Department Papers (NEH-ODH grant to CHNM) and the Jeremy Bentham Papers (ARCH grant to UCL). The LDS Church is organizing documentary indexing of census records, and companies like are allowing their users to contribute lots of metadata. However, in each of these projects the original records are owned by (and the labor is directed by) an institution, and the records to be digitized are limited to those the institution has funded.

    An alternative model of engaging the public encourages people to digitize their own materials, rather than those already possessed by archives. I am convinced that the quantity of documentary sources that sit in the filing cabinets and basements of citizens is enormous, but its quality cannot be evaluated while it remains inaccessible. Transforming this invisible archive into something usable–something which can be digitized by volunteers, exposed to the public, and interpreted by experts–is the goal I find most exciting. In addition to FromThePage–my own crowdsourced transcription project–the WikiSource community has been using the ProofreadPage MediaWiki plugin to distribute transcription of both OCRed text and handwritten documents, and efforts like Kete (NZ) and have been soliciting the public for their own materials, rather than just requesting labor.

    These two models need not stand in opposition, however. In both cases they rely on members of the public to contribute their effort towards creating or enhancing metadata, using software that distributes scanned images and facilitates collaboration. One archivist I’ve talked to longs for a sort of “Flickr for documents” — a public site his institution could use to distribute requested scans and connect scholars researching the same material. Finally, in each model software needs to be accessible but capable of gently directing volunteers toward compliance with archival and scholarly standards.

  10. Another science example is Galaxy Zoo, which lets amateurs describe and categorize astronomical images ( As for the Archives, I’m sure there are lots of enthusiastic genealogists who’d love to help transcribe handwritten records of genealogical interest. It would be useful to get multiple transcriptions of the same document to increase accuracy (an idea from GalaxyZoo).

  11. Thank you for bringing to my attention the very intriguing public transcription projects already underway at various institutions. I’m glad to see several of you expressing interest in online citizen archivist projects that we may offer in the future, including genealogy focused projects. While some of our projects might be more structured (like NASA’s Be A Martian and USGS’s North American Bird Phenology Program), we are also looking at platform projects that will allow you to determine your own ways of contributing. The Archives Wiki project is one example. Our belief is that this project will blossom with your ideas, thoughts, and contributions, rather than being agency driven. We will be collaborating with citizen archivists to envision and launch the wiki. We’re looking for folks who are interested in working on the ground up to develop this project. If you’re interested in being a citizen archivist leader, please email and let us know.

  12. David,

    This sounds like an incredible way to empower citizens. Now, we can add citizen archivist to the ranks of citizen scientists and citizen foresters across the globe!

    I’m part of a team that just launched Science for Citizens (, a website that connects citizen scientists and volunteers with all of the opportunities out there.

    We would love to have share this opportunity as a an official project on our website. That could assist in building more awareness for your project and hopefully get you more participants. All you need to do is set up an account (takes a minute) and enter the project details.

    Please let me know if you have any questions or would like more details.

    John | Sci4Cits

  13. Our project at UNC Chapel Hill just published a website that builds on citizen scanning of civilian records from the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation (HOLC) at NARA. The interfaces we explored include databases, and interactive maps to the digitized content. We were interested in exploring underlying preservation infrastructure (data grid based) that allows for the building of a national map of redlining maps and documents of US cities in the 1930s and which can be assembled from regional contributions.

    Would really appreciate any feedback on this kind of integrated and federated approach.



  14. What I’m interested in…
    When I went on a tour of NARA in Morrow, GA, I saw some of the gorgeous color photographs of the places that were eventually covered with water by the Tennessee Valley Authorities dam projects. I envisioned a documentary film with interviews of people who lived through that time and are still alive intercut with those images of places now vanished.

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