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National Archives: The "Citizen Archivist"

National Archives: The "Citizen Archivist"

I participated in part of a National Archives project as a “Citizens Archivist”. The National Archives, formally known as the National Archives and Records Administration, is an agency of the US government which preserves and documents government and historical records and attempts to increase public access to those records. Now obviously, once upon a time this meant that they would preserve documents, and visitors to the National Archives Building could see documents, etc. However, with the advent of computers and the internet, the goal of increasing public access to records no longer had a geographic barrier. They have scanned in documents for viewing which can be search through at https://www.archives.gov/research.

To allow easier reading and a better ability to search, it is necessary to have transcriptions of the documents rather than just scans. This is where the role of crowd-sourcing comes into play. If one visits https://www.archives.gov/citizen-archivist/transcribe/, they can become a “Citizens Archivists” as they put it, and help transcribe part of their massive digitized archive.

After signing up, I participated myself by helping transcribe parts of several documents. The site has an in-browser form that allows you to transcribe directly while viewing the document. I personally contributed to three separate documents: Letter to the Attorneys for the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/12518089), War Diary USS Harris  (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/12166271), and Navy Day Booklet (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/6882448).

Interestingly, the National Archives directs people to contribute to specific records, unlike the American Prison Writing Archive who just lists all the documents to be transcribed. There are six Transcription Missions focusing on specific topics such as the JFK assassination, and there is also a Featured Records section which includes approximately twenty documents to be transcribed as well. By doing this, the archivists running the project can direct the crowdsourcing to work on projects which they deem historically significant, which I think is a good decision. Rather than using the crowdsourcing to “brute force” through the enormous catalogue, specific collections of documents can be transcribed together so that they are all more easily accessible to the public.

I think that this is a form of preservation, which can be argued is an activist behavior. There is an often-quoted phrase: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. For this reason alone, it is important to remember the past, and preserving documents both important and seemingly insignificant is an appreciable way to do so.

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1 comment

This is a great article! It is informative and useful.

A group (The National Archives) makes the project available and uploads documents/images of documents to be transcribed. Then, people come and do the work! Crowdsourcing in the context of this blog is coming together to transcribe historical documents, and make them available in order to help people understand the past and make informed opinions and choices in the future. 

Did you think that the website was user friendly? Was it challenging to find the documents to transcribe, or sign up in order to contribte? Did you think that this setup was better than the one on the American Prison Writing Archive website, or just different?

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