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Volunteers at NARA Provide Support for Historians and Archivists

by David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States

One of the things that has most impressed me since I came to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) 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 that the past recorded on paper is not left behind in the digital era. Volunteers index tens of thousands of records; answer researchers’ questions; write articles about the records for our magazine, Prologue, and create our blogs; and present lectures to the public.

That’s some of what they do as volunteers. They are essentially what we now refer to as citizen archivists, individuals who donate their services to help us fulfill our mission.

At a senior-staff meeting on his first day in office in 2009, setting the stage for his Open Government Initiative, President Barack 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, D.C.–area facilities alone, we have nearly three hundred individuals who work as volunteers. They 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 volunteers program for thirty-five years. Now we are sharing some of our experiences to help other institutions—public and private, large and small—tap the knowledge, skills, and abilities of people in their own cities, towns, and cultural organizations, and on college and university campuses.

A new publication produced jointly by the Society of American Archivists (SAA) and NARA, Resources for Volunteer Programs in Archives, serves this purpose. It provides details on how volunteers have been deployed on projects at several of our locations and at other archives around the country.

For example, it describes how two volunteers at our Fort Worth, Texas, archives are helping process Confederate court records. It details how the project is managed, the training required, the equipment needed, the schedule, and many other aspects. The book also provides details on how the Indiana Historical Society uses volunteers to transcribe oral histories.

The book was compiled, written, and edited by NARA staff members, with SAA in charge of production. We are proud to have partnered with SAA to produce this fabulous and helpful guide, available free online at http://files.archivists.org/pubs/free/Resources-for-Volunteers_Final.pdf.

While volunteers are vital to our programs at NARA, their makeup has changed quite a bit in recent years. We are now welcoming retired baby boomers, who bring high-level skills and broad experience and want to “give back.” We also get students who need experience in a professional environment. Career changers and job seekers volunteer to gain archival experience as well as be productive and active citizens. And we get a lot of retired NARA staff archivists.

We are 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—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 us are electronic. The fiscal picture for the federal government, however, will remain austere for some time, so we won’t be able to hire as many professional archivists we would like. Meanwhile, volunteers are lightening the workload for our professional archivists. This frees up our professionals to ensure that the most important records are identified and preserved properly for future generations.

This is important work; we will always need help, and we will always welcome it.

Join the Archivist of the United States at his blog at http://blogs.archives.gov/aotus and visit the National Archives Web site at http://www.archives.gov.


About the Archivist

David S. Ferriero is the 10th Archivist of the United States. Prior to his confirmation on November 6, 2009, Ferriero served as the Andrew W. Mellon Director of the New York Public Libraries.