Can We All Be Archivists?

While many historians in their ivory towers would say no to this question, some public historians are saying yes! They understand the benefit of having more than a few sets of eyes on a document. With the different background knowledge that each individual comes in with, they might have a different (and sometimes better) understanding of the documents than the archivist themselves.

Having those extra sets of eyes is great, but as most museum working public historians know, they don’t want a huge number of random people rummaging through their archives. Without proper document handling training, this could lead to missing or damaged objects, many of which are irreplaceable.

So how do you solve the problem of wanting those extra eyes but not wanting the extra hands all over your stuff? The National Archives Records Administration (NARA) had figured it out! By properly creating a digital format for all these easily damageable objects, one can now look at all the documents for as long as your heart desires without fear of losing or damaging them. This digital format is also helpful when trying to share these objects with the world. Rather than having the few people who know about the archive come and make an appointment to look at the actual objects (which for many people is physically impossible), now the NARA can upload everything to their website and have everyone who has Internet access be able to look at it.

Once it hits the web, that it when the magic happens. The NARA has a Citizen Archivist program that allows everyday people to go in and not only look at the documents on file, but to interact with them and make contributions. A person can add tags, add comments, or transcribe a document. These additions will make searching for these documents easier for future readers, who will also add their own tags and comments. For example, on a document that lists the voters at the Constitutional Convention, I transcribed a few of the names and their vote that were hard for other people to read (Being a history major, you get used to reading older handwritten documents in a way that most readers would not).  

The goal of the project is to have every document in the collection easily searchable and readable. Since achieving this goal with every document would be a challenge for the staff at the NARA (even though they have a staff much larger than most museums and historical societies), they use the American citizens as their new archivists.    

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