YOU, the People: Citizen Archivists and Digital Engagement

By Robin Waldman

Today I had the pleasure of attending a program in the National Archives’ William G. McGowan Theater called Are You In? Citizen Archivists, Crowdsourcing and Open Government that outlined some great projects that involve the public with making records available online.

AOTUS Ferriero opened the program with remarks that described how President Obama’s Open Government mandate of December 2009 has urged agencies to transform the ways they do business, involving the citizenship in the efforts of the government. The statistics about NARA’s records present a compelling reason to get more people participating: NARA has 130 million records online. But that’s only a drop in the bucket, or a narrow Hollinger in the stacks: NARA has 10 billion records overall. Thus, as an agency we need to leverage new technology and encourage public participation.

We know that people want to participate in our mission; we see that by the enthusiasm with which researchers add tags to our Flickr images. So next stop for the Archives is to identify further opportunities to encourage public involvement. Today’s presentation highlighted three different programs that are successfully using crowdsourcing and microvolunteering to harness the power of the internet and the enthusiasm of public researchers to aggregate volunteer hours and publish results:’s World Archives Program (AWAP) provides free software to its volunteers to access already-scanned images and transcribe them into a common, publicly-searchable database. The program has been running since 2008, and boasts

  • 82,000 total contributing users
  • coming from 130 different countries
  • who have keyed in the data from 90.2 million records
  • donating a cumulative 1.4 million hours of volunteer time
  • for a total of 96 fully completed indexing projects.

And perhaps most interesting of all, Ancestry’s speaker Darla Adams said that most indexers can complete a batch of records in less than twenty minutes.

The New York Public Library’s Map Rectifier Project has created a geo-rectification toolkit that creates layered digital maps utilizing all of the information available about a certain geography from sources as varied as Google’s satellite imagery and fire insurance land maps that are two centuries old. Citizen geo-rectifiers index information that records how many floors a building once had or what a street was named at different points in time, and the resulting layered digital map shows the aggregate results.

The US Geological Survey’s North American Bird Phenology Program makes scans of bird migration research notes available to its indexers. The notes consist of six million migration card observations that were created from 1880 to 1970 all across North America, tracking data about bird appearances in various locales in a historic attempt to map migration patterns (and which are of a resurging interest now for the purposes of, among other things,  studying climate change). In the past three years, 2000 indexing volunteers have already successfully transcribed 500,000 records.

Combining the philosophies of Open Government with the potential of crowdsourcing through microvolunteering opens up many opportunities for NARA. As the agency explores options for crowdsourcing projects, think about these questions:

do you have ten or twenty minutes to spare?

Do you want to be a citizen archivist?

Edited to add: a full video of the Are You In? program is now available for viewing on the National Archives’ YouTube channel.

One thought on “YOU, the People: Citizen Archivists and Digital Engagement

  1. These programs prove how crowdsourcing has greatly helped both the government and the citizens themselves. The government has become more open and the citizens themselves are getting more involved. The citizens are very well empowered!

    Here’s another interesting read entitled, 2010 Open Government Data Benchmark Study, which you can find at

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