In his inaugural address, John F Kennedy famously proclaimed: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” When people think about serving their country, they might consider joining the national guard, the peace corps, or running for elected office. Did you know that there’s another way to serve your country, and to do it you don’t even need to leave your house? All you need is a digital device with internet connection. While it certainly is not as glamorous as some of the examples mentioned above (and it does not require as much in the way of sacrifice), I’m talking about the Citizen Archivist program sponsored by the National Archives.
The Citizens Archivist program is one of the results of the recent movement for crowdsourcing in digital and public history. Contributors do not need to have a history degree or have prior experience with digital history. You can contribute by adding tags to primary sources or by transcribing documents. These “Citizen Archivist Missions” are often curated in such a manner that they relate to a general theme which might have some relevance to current events. For example, many of the current missions relate to documents from the 1970s, a decade with the Watergate investigation and the Vietnam War. I’ll let you make your own conclusions about the relevance of these topics to the current decade.
You might be thinking that reading through and transcribing government documents might not sound that exciting, but hang with me. You get to learn about topics in history that you might not be that familiar about, or expand your knowledge of certain historical topics that you find interesting. For instance, I decided to start with a document from the Pentagon Papers. While I was already familiar with the Pentagon Papers, I had never read parts of it myself. I got to read first-hand the back and forth between U.S. and French officials in the 1950s, as the U.S. was beginning to get more involved in Vietnam. Also, keep in mind that since there is no deadline, you can go at your own pace.
While I’ve listed many of the reasons why I think this is a useful program, I have to admit that I do still have some concerns. The National Archives admit that they do not actively review work, and your work is not closed for further editing. This can be both a positive and negative quality. For instance, as I was reading through a transcription of a Watergate document, I noticed that a previous contributor had missed a “not” in one of the sentences he or she transcribed. “Not” may be a small word, but its presence or absence can have major implications to the meaning of a sentence, or even an entire document. Since the work was not closed for further editing, I was able to address the error. (In case you were that contributor, I mean no offense. We all make mistakes.) On the other hand, most contributors probably don’t spend time reading through already completed transcriptions. Also, while I’d like to assume that the majority of contributors have pure motivations, if someone has an agenda, they could intentionally change the meaning of certain documents. That being said, you can report violations of the Citizens Contribution Policy.
Learn more about becoming a Citizen Archivist: https://www.archives.gov/citizen-archivist/faqs
What do you think: Does the Citizen Archivist program have a useful mission? Should digital historians do more in the way of crowdsourcing? Will you try your hand at tagging or transcribing documents for the National Archives. Comments welcome.