Sunday, November 6, 2011

The challenges of Citizen-Archivery

I went to the National Archives' McGowan Theater on Friday night (4 November 2011) to watch and listen to a panel discuss the latest in social media in archives and government.  My primary focus was to learn the latest on the new Citizen-Archivist Dashboard, an application going online soon that will allow researchers to upload scanned or digitally imaged documents directly to the National Archives website and connect those images directly with official catalog citations in ARC and other online descriptive pamphlets and finding aides. This is what I've been hoping they would come up with and it looks like it will soon be available.

The intermediate steps have been to use Flickr and youtube to highlight National Archives records.  These services, as great as they are, have serious limitations.  They are most useful for casual perusal of individual, unconnected records, but not very useful for conducting serious research.  The images are generally too small for any real transcription work, especially when many NARA records are handwritten documents. The videos are generally low resolution and too short. The limitations on file size, format and description are also troubling.  Using these services were baby-steps to help familiarize the public (and NARA staff) with the concepts of social media and sharing of data in the open-source manner.  Despite this concept being essentially part of NARA's core mission-statement to make available Federal records and government data, it was a significant technological leap to make for an agency still stuck (in many ways) in a 20th century mode of thinking about records, public access and sharing. But, with AOTUS Ferriero's stewardship and his ability to pick smart, forward-thinking civil servants to carry out his vision, it happened.

They have slowly added more Citizen-Archivist interactive functionality.  The Online Public Access page now has a tagging feature, so researchers or would-be archivist-types, can tag an image and cite it, perhaps link it directly to items in ARC and other online catalogs.  This is another baby-step to full integration of the online and textual collections, with full search functionality and a direct description-to-item correlation and concordance.  This is all going to be at least theoretically possible once the HMS software is fully populated with data, all the boxes of records in the building have been tagged, marked and identified and the locations of every single item entered in the database.  This is still an ongoing process.

The local Wash-DC Wikipedian element is now involved, there is a NARA Wikepedian-in-Residence and some other big players are giving serious thought to how they can be a part of the game.  The private firms like (and oh yeah, there isn't anyone else except google perhaps) are spending their money to digitize records for their private networks, so some of the collection is getting online and available for a fee. is the business side of the equation, and it has relevance, despite its genealogy orientation.  It's sister site ( has a real potential for being more than just a genealogy site. With the right collections and indexing, arranged properly, it could be a premier military-history research resource.

Individuals are doing small projects, too numerous to discuss here.  There just isn't much in the way of funding available for the small-timers.  Congress has yet to really get behind these kinds of initiatives and although NARA is going ahead with their projects despite a shrinking budget, it will be difficult to expand on present efforts in the future without more money.  In the current climate, it is hard to imagine seeing a large influx of cash for this kind of thing.  It would seem like the perfect kind of thing for a techno-savvy philanthropist like Bil Gates to throw a billion bucks at, but what do I know?  I do what I do on a poverty level salary - actually less.

As a Citizen-Archivist, it seems challenging to find a way to present my data, to dispense my collection of scans and images, in a cost effective and labor efficient manner to the research community and the general public.  Its seems challenging to find ways to fund the activity of scanning and processing - whether raising funds through philanthropy, offering services, or using private resources.  I have found temporary solutions, again and again, to those problems.  The real challenge isn't either of those issues, but fundamentally that of perseverance, persistence, and flexibility in the face of rapid change. Circumstances and opportunities have changed so much at the National Archives in the past 36 months that it almost boggles the mind to keep up.

I look forward to the Citizen-Archivist Dashboard and what comes next, and hope that things plateau soon so that the contributions of Citizen-Archivists, past and future, will have a chance to achieve a more persistent and steadfast legacy.  It seems a waste of valuable labor to spend time to populate one system after the other with data just to see them superseded by a version X or a new software rev.  In the mean time, I will keep scanning.  The singularity, the composite solution will coalesce soon enough...