The National Archives has elevated the importance of public participation by creating a role for “citizen archivists” and encouraging substantive contributions like tags, transcripts, and digital images that increase public access to the records of the Federal Government. The Citizen Archivist Initiative is a new way of working with researchers, genealogists, and the public, so that records can be more easily found online. The National Archives has begun to develop tools, like the Citizen Archivist Dashboard (http://www.archives.gov/citizen-archivist) and participate in external communities like Wikipedia and Flickr so that it can harness the benefits of crowdsourcing activities that support the crucial mission of the agency.
The Problem: Finding something in the National Archives could be compared to trying to find a needle in a haystack. With more than 10 billion pages of paper records alone, there is no shortage of records to digitize or transcribe. The public expects to find exactly what they are looking for online, but only a small percentage is currently available.
Early Development: In April 2010, the Archivist of the United States, David Ferriero, introduced the concept of “citizen archivist” as a way to embrace the principles of the White House’s Open Government Directive – transparency, participation, and collaboration. He drew on parallels to citizen science and sought to re-imagine the agency’s relationship with the public. Recognizing that what researchers learn from the records could be captured and harnessed, he set out a vision to develop digital tools that would “make adding real value to our work intriguing, easy, and fun.”
Innovative Way of Doing Business: The National Archives was the first to use the term “citizen archivist” to refer to public participation activities and the first federal agency to consider crowdsourcing activities as an innovative way of doing business. By organizing processes and policies and developing tools to harness contributions, the very way in which the agency serves the public is changing.
Changing Previous Practice: For more than 75 years, the National Archives has provided public access to records in research rooms across the country. Beginning in the 1990s, limited access to records has been available online. The Citizen Archivist Initiative broadens the agency’s responsibility beyond traditional access to include providing digital crowdsourcing tools and opportunities for the public to contribute. The Citizen Archivist Initiative espouses a broad approach not limited to one type or set of records and not limited to activities within the physical or digital “four walls” of the agency. By participating in external communities like Wikipedia that have an interest in the records of the National Archives, the Citizen Archivist Initiative is fundamentally changing how the agency thinks about its mission and how it approaches access to records in the 21st century.