David S. Ferriero 2014-02-10 11:04:58
One of the things that has most impressed me since I came to the National Archives three years ago is the work of our corps of dedicated, knowledgeable volunteers. What they do for us—and for the American people—is amazing. They write hundreds of item-level descriptions, annotate thousands of photo captions, and assist with digitization projects so the past that is recorded on paper isn’t left behind in the digital era. They index tens of thousands of records; answer researchers’ questions; write articles about the records for our magazine, Prologue, and posts for our blogs; and present lectures to the public. That’s some of what they do as volunteers. These volunteers are essentially what we now refer to as “citizen archivists,” individuals who volunteer their services to help us fulfill our duties as the nation’s record keeper. At a senior staff meeting on his first day in office in 2009, setting the stage for his Open Government Initiative, President Obama said: “Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that the Government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know. And that’s why, as of today, I’m directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans. . . .” At the National Archives, we carry out this mandate with the help of our citizen archivists. In our Washington-area facilities Alone, we have nearly 300 individuals who work as volunteers who contributed more than 42,000 hours of their personal time to various projects during the past year. Nationwide, we have about 1,600 volunteers. The National Archives has had a volunteer program for thirty-five years. Now we’re sharing some of our experiences so other archives—public and private, large and small—can learn how to tap the knowledge, skills, and abilities of people in their own cities and towns, cultural institutions, and college and university campuses. A new publication produced jointly by SAA and NARA, Resources for Volunteer Programs in Archives, serves this purpose. It provides details on how volunteers have been deployed in projects at several of our locations and at other archives around the country. For example, it describes how two volunteers at our Fort Worth archives are helping to process Confederate court records. It details how the project is managed, the training required, the equipment needed, the schedule, and many other aspects. The publication was compiled, written, and edited by NARA staff members, with additional editing by SAA, which was in charge of production. We’re proud to have partnered with SAA to produce this fabulous and helpful guide. It’s free and Online at http://www2.archivists.org/sites/ all/files/Resources-for-Volunteers_Final.pdf. While volunteers are vital to our programs at NARA, their makeup has changed quite a bit in the last few years. We are now welcoming retired baby boomers who bring high-level skills and broad experience and want to give back. We get students who need experience in a professional environment. We get career changers and job seekers who want to gain archival experience as well as be occupied. And we get a lot of retired NARA staff archivists. We’re pleased and honored that they come to us to stay engaged, learn, and share what they know. However, they cannot take the place of well-educated professional archivists, who are schooled in modern archival practices, including (and especially) information technology, so they’ll be able to do their jobs effectively and efficiently when all the records coming to them are electronic. Volunteers—some of our citizen archivists—can never take the place of these professionally trained archivists. It’s preposterous to think so. The budget picture for the federal government will remain austere for some time, so we won’t be able to hire as many professional archivists as we would like. Meanwhile, volunteers are lightening the professional archivists’ workloads. This frees up those professionals to ensure that the most important records are identified and preserved properly for future generations. This is important work, and we will always need help, and we will always welcome it.
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