In a comment on his first blog post, Archivist of the United States (AOTUS), David Ferriero asked:
As I read your comments, I’m reminded that we’ve just taken the first step. I’m glad to see enthusiasm for the kinds of institutional changes that will harness the power of the internet. In order to become an agency fit for the 21st century, we need to think how we can leverage the power, enthusiasm, and dedication of ‘citizen archivists.’ What does that term mean to you?
I’m not sure if there is a specific inspiration for Ferriero’s choice of the term “citizen archivist,” but I suspect it has been applied to Carl Malamud (also sometimes referred to as a “rogue archivist”), and if you’re a regular reader of this blog you can see why this may have leapt to Ferrriero’s mind. I’ve written before about how great I think Malamud’s volunteer scanning project is, but I don’t think “citizen archivist” is the right term to use to describe people who carry out such efforts.
First, let me point out what I think Ferriero is getting at. He says he wants to harness the public participation, support, and knowledge of what in the pre-digital days we probably would have called volunteers (or advocates, depending on the role). And, if I imagine myself in Ferriero’s place, I can see why he wants to find a term to use other than volunteer. First, the level of expertise and creativity that he wants to harness (such as that shown by Malamud and others) goes far beyond what we normally think of when we hear “volunteer.” He is looking for a more attractive term, one that implies more initiative and responsibility. In some ways, he’s really probably talking about a marketing term. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way–what’s needed is a catchy phrase that will apply to a new kind of . . . volunteer, and can be used to describe people with a wide range of skill sets and levels of participation.
That said, I strongly object to using “citizen archivist” to describe these new kinds of volunteers. While meant as a term of respect for the volunteers, I think the term is actually disrespectful to archivists. Would you call someone who volunteers in a hospital a “citizen doctor” or a “citizen nurse”? An archivist is a trained professional, with education, expertise, and responsibility. I think the world of Carl Malamud, but he is not an archivist–rogue, citizen, or otherwise. What he does is great, but it is not the work of an archivist. The kinds of public participation that I think Ferriero is looking for will produce wonderful results and I applaud it, but I doubt much of it will be a substitute for the work for NARA’s professional archivists.*
My creativity is failing me, and I cannot think of a term to suggest as a substitute. I’m sure if I go back and look through the literature there are terms used to describe people who are engaging with an online archives community, but I don’t recall any of them having much panache. If the point is to make the people involved feel empowered (sorry for the cliche), then an academic term may not do. So, like any good citizen of the 2.0 world, I’m appealing to the crowd–can you suggest a better term?
* Note: That said, there does seem to be a place for using “citizen archivist” to refer to someone who takes responsibility for carrying out archival functions for records or papers that are either their own personal property or which are currently not under the custodianship of an archives or archivist. See for example Richard J. Cox (2009) “Digital Curation and the Citizen Archivist.” Digital Curation: Practice, Promises & Prospects . pp. 102-109. See also the Citizen Archivist Project (a new one for me).