History Hub: A 21st Century Model for Archival Reference

When the National Archives launched History Hub in January 2016, we hoped it would be a game-changing way to provide access to information and diverse sources of expertise.  I’m pleased to share that what started out as an experimental project has become an active community of researchers and experts.

The idea for History Hub began with research into how organizations can best communicate with and serve their audiences. We discovered that our customers expect instantaneous feedback, self-service information retrieval, and personalized interactions with organizations. We were inspired by the success that technology companies have had with online support communities; these platforms invite connections between staff, customers, and enthusiasts who bring their own expertise to the forum. In a resource-constrained environment, we were also excited by the possibility of enabling many-to-many interactions, helping us to serve researchers more quickly and efficiently by harnessing the collective knowledge of internal and external experts.  Informed by these insights and models, the National Archives decided to launch History Hub (history.gov), a crowdsourcing platform for people interested in researching history.  History Hub offers tools like discussion boards, blogs, and community pages to bring together experts and researchers interested in American history.

History Hub homepage
Homepage of History Hub, history.gov

We like to think of History Hub as both a community and an interactive knowledge base that scales and improves in quality over time.  Through History Hub, we aim to facilitate historical research, connect with audiences, enable contributions from people with a variety of expertise, and ultimately improve customer service to researchers.

So, how is our experiment paying off? History Hub has seen a steady increase in traffic and activity since launch, enabling continued growth of the knowledge base that powers the platform. With additional organizations coming on board to participate and provide expertise—and with search engines driving new visits as new questions are asked and are answered—History Hub is showing the potential to reach and serve millions of people per year. Here’s what has happened on History Hub since January 2016:

  • Questions asked: 968
  • Answers posted: 1,068
  • Registered users: 4,355
  • Unique visitors: 71,275
  • Pageviews: 3,811,702

This project is a collaboration across the National Archives, with leadership from our Research Services staff, the Office of Innovation, and IT. Our reference staff are excited by the potential of the platform as well as the opportunity to collaborate more closely with peer institutions. On History Hub, our staff have answered research questions alongside knowledgeable people outside of the National Archives, including citizen historians, scholars, and experts at other cultural organizations. For example, the Library of Congress has come together with NARA staff to provide researchers with more complete answers about their questions related to the 1895 Atlanta Exposition, the Revolutionary War, and Thomas Jefferson’s papers. In other cases, genealogists have assisted others researching their own family history and citizen historians collaborated to identify and interpret a servicemember’s insignia (note: this discussion was one of them most popular in the last year). We are really pleased to see evidence of this kind of many-to-many communication, which is a critical supplement to the one-to-one support the National Archives offers through phone, email, and research visits.  We’re excited to see how History Hub grows and what it will teach us about how archives can provide great reference services in the digital age.

Have you tried History Hub yet? Here are some tips for getting started:

Give it a try and let us know what you think!

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