By Danielle Kim • October 28, 2014

Government office spaces are notorious for amassing mountains of assorted papers, meeting notes, and memos. Just the prospect of having to sift through this hodgepodge of materials to find a particular document is daunting, let alone having to create a systematic way of maintaining, codifying, and opening up access to these records for research purposes.

But this is the very task facing the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), the agency responsible for preserving and making accessible the federal government’s vast collection of documents and materials that record American history. Especially in this increasingly tech-savvy world, people have come to expect not only real-time information at their fingertips, but also digitized and transcribed versions of these important resources. With trillions of print and electronic materials in holding, it is no surprise that the National Archives staff struggles to keep up with the endless stack of historical records.

Pamela Wright, NARA’s first Chief Innovation Officer, finds this to be an unavoidable challenge: “In just paper alone, the National Archives possesses over 12 billion pages of historical records, and that is just one bucket of our work. We also have an immense collection of films, audio recordings, photographs, and electronic records that the agency must preserve and maintain. Due to the large number of records and limited staff resources, it is increasingly clear we need to be creative in order to provide effective online access,” explained Wright.     

Increasing Access

Since late 2009, when David Ferriero came on board as the new Archivist of the United States, the overarching mission of NARA has been to increase public access to the agency’s vast collections. Coinciding with the launch of the White House’s Open Government initiative, Ferriero’s appointment marked a significant cultural shift for the agency. In early 2010, under his direction, NARA adopted the three core principles of the Open Government initiative—transparency, participation, and collaboration. To better position NARA to meet these ambitious values, Ferriero restructured the organization and began seeking new, creative ways to approach the agency’s work.

Ferriero did not have to look far to find inspiration. In 2010, the federal government was beginning to see pockets of crowdsourcing emerge in several forward-thinking projects, particularly around the citizen science sector. While the concept of citizen science—soliciting knowledge, participation, and research help from the public—is not new, this was the first time in which a handful of federal agencies developed online platforms to allow citizens to make substantive contributions, regardless of one’s geographical location.

In particular, NASA launched the “Be A Martian” project, a sophisticated online education tool that helps bridges the gap between citizen space enthusiasts and the agency’s actual work. On the website, the public is invited to participate as “citizen scientists,” inspecting real photos from several Mars missions and counting up the number of visible craters. Through this medium, citizens are able to gain access to NASA’s exciting collection of images, while contributing tangible value to government data and records.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s (USGS) North American Bird Phenology Program has taken this one step further by channeling the enthusiasm of citizen scientists to transcribe existing records and add them to a digital database for analysis. Active between 1880 and 1970, the program was coordinated by the federal government and sponsored by the American Ornithologists' Union, as a means to record information on first arrival dates, maximum abundance, and departure dates of migratory birds across North America. This historic collection contains six million paper migration cards, representing the contributions of thousands of volunteers and illuminating almost a century of invaluable information about bird migration patterns.

Today, the North American Bird Phenology Program involves 1,754 online volunteers who have transcribed 228,479 of the paper documents and converted them for use on the USA National Phenology Network database. Through these efforts, volunteers are not only engaging with important primary sources but also creating virtual communities of like-minded activists who are passionate about cultivating greater dialogue and engagement around this critical work.

Digital Engagement

In other words, crowdsourcing tools are redefining what it means to be an engaged citizen. In previous decades, business-as-usual government retained a monopoly on information and authority, while people were left to create their own pathways of community problem solving. With robust advancements in information technology and social media, physical distance and time restrictions no longer stand in the way of citizens looking to work together on civic issues.

New digital platforms are emerging to help bolster existing communities and to define new ones. One such effort is the online Citizen Archivist Dashboard, launched by the National Archives and Records Administration in late 2011. Managed by NARA’s Office of Innovation, this groundbreaking initiative allows the public to directly interact with historical documents and to contribute their time, knowledge, and expertise to supplement permanent archival records.

With the dashboard, volunteers are able to participate in a number of cooperative activities, including tagging, transcribing, and writing articles about scanned NARA documents, explained Meredith Stewart, Management and Program Analyst in the Office of Innovation. “The dashboard is not just a single project, but rather a portal that points to a lot of different pilot projects that we have released over the years,” clarified Stewart.

Thanks to the dedicated passion of NARA staff and volunteer users, the dashboard has successfully elevated the visibility of the National Archives, and has changed the image and culture of the nation's most visible record-keeping institution.

Although Citizen Archivist Dashboard has received widespread acclaim for its diverse and ambitious work, the staff at the Office of Innovation were not sure exactly how this initiative would resonate with the general public. Stewart accounted the experience of going live with the pilot transcription project in January 2012 as one of great uncertainty: “When we set up the transcription project, we didn’t know what would happen. Internally, there was a lot of hesitation around opening up the transcription process to people who weren’t archivists or historians—that was something that we had never tried before.”

“We initially loaded 300 documents into the pilot and waited to see what would happen. Within two weeks, virtually all of the 1,000 pages were completed by the public. It far exceeded any of our expectations, and we soon realized that we were on to something. In no way does NARA have the internal capacity to transcribe all of our existing records. It’s exciting to know that there is untapped demand to get engaged with our collections. People really do want to help, and this dashboard is enabling citizens to do precisely that,” stated Stewart.

Citizen Archivists

In comparison to other crowdsourcing projects launched by the federal government, the Citizen Archivist Dashboard was designed to be simple and easy to use. “We wanted to remove as many barriers to entry as possible, so that regular citizens would not feel discouraged or intimidated by this new tool. Rather than making the process front-heavy with a log-in requirement and a lot of information to read up front, we decided to keep the page unlocked and completely open for users to jump right in. Simply put, we are coming in with the goal of increasing access, and the back end of the platform was designed to further support that mission,” Stewart added.

Other features associated with dashboard include the National Archives Citizen Archivist Flickr group and an opportunity to edit and transcribe Archives documents into searchable text on Wikisource, the Wikipedia repository for primary documents. With 50 active members and 138 photos to date, NARA’s Flickr group encourages volunteers to take their own photos of records in the National Archives reading rooms and to share them with the public and other researchers. In this way, the dashboard serves as a dynamic nexus, allowing citizen archivists to not only expand their knowledge base of historical records, but also interact with fellow volunteers.

Similarly, the National Archives WikiProject, featured on the Citizen Archivist Dashboard platform, aims to improve public access to NARA’s resources and to bring historical materials into the digital age. Dominic McDevitt-Parks, Wikipedian in residence, has led the effort to recruit volunteers interested in transcribing primary handwritten documents into text on Wikisource.

To date, McDevitt-Parks has transferred over 100,000 Archives documents to Wikimedia Commons, the online encyclopedia's image repository. According to NARA’s Office of Innovation, this metadata has been directly incorporated into approximately 4,000 Wiki articles, not just in English but other languages too. “The impact of this project is immense. Just with these articles, we were able to reach over 1.2 billion people in 2013. In comparison, NARA’s website received 18 million views last year. This is a level of access beyond anything that the National Archives could have achieved alone. Online crowdsourcing has been the key to this success, and we, as a federal agency, have a responsibility to continue expanding channels of participation and engagement,” said Stewart.

Preserving the Past

Looking ahead to the future, NARA's Office of Innovation team is preparing to launch the next version of Citizen Archivist Dashboard that will feature improved tagging and transcription features. Most notably, NARA is positioning itself to open up the catalog and make all of these features available via an application programming interface (API). In this way, the agency hopes to not only give citizen archivists access to machine-readable data, but also provide them with the capability to create their own powerful data tools.

Through these initiatives, NARA is getting closer to fulfilling its ambitious promises listed on the Citizen Archivist Dashboard’s welcome page: "One day…All of our records will be online" and "You can help make it happen.” Thanks to the dedicated passion of NARA staff and volunteer users, the dashboard has successfully elevated the visibility of the National Archives, and has changed the image and culture of the nation's most visible record-keeping institution.

Perhaps Chief Innovation Officer Pamela Wright summarizes it best: “This really boils down to doing what it takes to keep democracy alive—to keep people contributing, participating, and collaborating with government offices on important issues. By embracing technological advancements and giving citizens a stake in the agency’s future, the National Archives and Records Administration is now in a much better position to preserve the past.”