Records Held Hostage: Bringing the National Archives to the Public

Records Held Hostage: Bringing the National Archives to the Public

Posted by Carly B. Boxer on March 7, 2013 in Blog.

Last week, Nieman Lab’s Justin Ellis wrote about making the National Archives more accessible to the American public. The article, “Hiding in public: How the National Archives wants to open up its data to Americans,” looks at the barriers preventing wide-spread access to NARA’s records as well as a number of new efforts to include the public in the archive’s efforts. In the article, Bill Mayer, executive for research services for the National Archives and Records Administration, notes that the current distribution of hard-copy records around the US prevents the public from accessing NARA’a resources — the records, according to Mayer, are “held hostage by their format.”

In order to confront the inherent challenges of making public the federal government’s records — discrepancies among departments over rights, a 15-year lag in processing, and the sheer scale of the quantity of documents to be produced — NARA has been seeking out new, innovative strategies aimed at engaging the public, and at cataloging and at efficiently cataloging and digitizing its resources. NARA’s recently established office of innovation begs the question: how much of the public’s access to the Archives should depend on the public’s engagement with the Archives?

Ellis cites a few of the office of innovation’s 135 projects, ranging from its Today’s Document Tumblr feed to its growing Flickr archive, all of which aim to make NARA’s record not only publicly accessible, but also more easily visible to a targeted group of those already interested in archival documents. (After all, following their Tumblr or subscribing to their Flickr means regular updates, but it also involves choosing to follow / subscribe…). The Citizen Archivist Dashboard, meanwhile, serves as the most direct attempt to engage the public; in asking its visitors to tag and transcribe, the site implicates the public in the process of guaranteeing its own access, transforming a once hidden process of archivist-led cataloging into a participatory, collective effort.

Giving users the ability to contribute to tagging and transcription, letting the public add photos and edit articles, not only facilitates an efficiency drawn from crowd-sourced record processing, but it also creates a deeper investment in the content of those records. The tens of thousands of linear feet of records that NARA processes every year can serve the public best when the public knows what’s in those records -which takes time to explore archival photos and to interact with historical correspondences. The goal of the archive shifts: records don’t simply languish in stacks waiting for researchers to seek them out; instead, uncatalogued records provide the impetus for archival exploration, beckoning the public to learn more, read something new, and play an active role in preserving history.

When Mayer said that the records were held hostage by their format, he ostensibly meant that analog records can be pretty darn hard to access for anyone who’s not in close geographic proximity, and that processing and digitizing the records is a necessarily time consuming process. That is to say, that the public just has to wait for digitization to happen before they can engage with the documents. But accessibility is a problem that extends beyond the physical limitations of a medium. Encouraging the public to interact with NARA’s records through efforts such as the Citizen Archivist Dashboard encourages a different kind of accessibility — a public desire to engage with American history, an active participation in the preservation of national records, and a reassertion of the inherent value of engaging with the content contained in NARA’s vast storehouses. To make records work for the general public, they have to be available in a physical sense (be it online or in a reading room), but they also have to be engaging, relatable, and appreciated; making the public part of the process of rediscovering those documents brings us a big step closer to that goal.

Cover Image, “ East Room of the White House, 08/01/1952,” Courtesy of the US National Archives on Flickr.

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