Why we need to find a term to replace “citizen archivist”

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).

Be Sociable, Share!

30 thoughts on “Why we need to find a term to replace “citizen archivist””

  1. Is it not a reference to “citizen science” along the lines of eBird (http://ww.ebird.org). I think the invocation of “citizen” was a way to avoid pejorative reference to “amateur” science vs. “professional” science.

  2. Yes, I can see that too–avoid “amateur” and the dreaded “buff” at all costs!

    I’m on board with the need for a better term. And I freely admit that I am perhaps overly sensitive on this issue because there are many people out there who probably don’t think that it requires any professional training to be an archivist. The term is commonly applied to anyone who saves or collects things, it seems.

  3. The term “citizen archivist” immediately makes me think of “citizen journalist”, and how that term has been insulting to journalists for quite a few years now, for the same reasons you have pointed out when using the term for archivists.

    With the onslaught of user-friendly technology, anyone can upload anything to YouTube or a blog and call themselves a “citizen journalist”, which only aids to nullify the education and experience of a trained journalist. I hope that “citizen archivist” is a catch phrase that has no staying power.

    I can understand someone with a particular skill set not wanting to be viewed as “just a volunteer”. I was an unemployed archivist for almost 2 years, and it was humbling to go from being in charge of a department to having to volunteer to gain more experience… and to be treated as, well, as a volunteer. There have been educated, committed, highly skilled volunteers in the archival community long before the digital age — we don’t need a new term.

  4. Carrie and Ryan–yes, you’re right, the connection to “citizen journalist” makes sense.

    And Carrie, yes, I’ve been “just a volunteer” too from time to time. Most archives couldn’t manage without them.

  5. I love a good marketing slogan! I am not entirely sure how an Archivist is defined though – in Australia an Archivist does not necessarily always deal with records in an archive, but records where ever they might be. I think volunteer is still a completely valid, contemporary and useful term so I do not think it should be changed.

    Use of the term ‘citizen’ really pushes the idea that a person is engaged and participating in some kind of political ideal – probably democracy. One of my favourite words of the 2000’s is ‘boffin’ and I think it should be re-contextualised and brought back into the vernacular. What about ‘Citizen Boffins’? Does it have to be specifically about archiving? ‘Preservation Boffins’? ‘Curator Boffins’? ‘Digital Boffins’? ‘Scanner Boffins’? Sounds very sci-fi…

  6. Hi Kate – I’m in sympathy with this perspective; I’ve spent a fair amount of time in the course of my working life explaining the difference between the archivist role and the role of IT, admin, etc.

    But: to me ‘citizen archivist’ – like ‘citizen journalist’ or ‘citizen activist’ – connotes someone engaged but clearly non-professional. I like it because it suggests that archiving matters to everyone, not just a small group of archivists and scholars.

    Some of the most visionary archivists have been people who simply understood why archives matter, and acted to save what no one else saw value in. Too often the professional archives world has defined itself in a limited and ultimately self-defeating way, excluding, for example, moving image materials, so-called ephemera, whole communities or categories of people. To me, the use of ‘citizen archivist’ is actually an opportunity to better teach people what professional archivists do, to enter into what is meaningful, exciting, complex, and exacting. And again, as with citizen journalists, we can get hung up on our own identity, or we can look at what is really interesting and valuable that is happening out there in the non-professional sector for what it is, and maybe learn from it.

  7. I’m generally protective of the word “archivist” too, but I don’t mind the term “citizen archivist” when used in this way. The “citizen” part indicates that there’s a distinction between “lay” people with a passion for documenting particular communities or phenomena and those who are trained and work in the field as professionals. Frankly, since plain old unvarnished “archivist” gets thrown around and co-opted by and for anybody who likes to save stuff, I think it’s a step in the right direction, and I agree with Grace that its use provides us with an opportunity to educate people about what an archivist is and what we do.

  8. Grace and Christine–I think I agree with part of what you are saying and respectfully disagree with more of it.

    As I said in my “note” above, “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.” As far as I can tell, this is not the kind of work volunteers would be doing for the National Archives.

    In a traditional physical archives if you have volunteers working on transcribing records, photocopying or scanning materials, helping to identify or date photographs, writing supplementary materials for a finding aid, or working on a special project to make materials more accessible, how would you refer to them? I do not think you would call them a “citizen archivist” or even a “volunteer archivist.” The usual term to describe these people is “volunteers.”

    If a different, sexier term is needed to bring attention and increased value to these kinds of contributions in an online environment, I still contend that we need to be conscious about ensuring that there is a clear distinction between the work of volunteers and the work of professionals. Again, I don’t think anyone would say that someone who volunteers in a hospital is a “citizen doctor” because the professional credentials and expertise required to become a doctor are so well known. Unfortunately, as we know, that is not the case for archivists.

    The issue of whether putting “citizen” in front of it mitigates the problem or not is matter of personal perception, I think. Your perception is that it makes it clear that the person is an amateur, and therefore the distinction is clear. My perception is that it implies that the person is essentially carrying out the same function (as in “citizen journalist”) but simply lacks the credentials or formal job title. My perception of the term is that a “citizen archivist” is essentially an archivist who is acting on their own initiative, without any formal role. That’s how I perceive the term.

    I do not see this as an opportunity for education, but rather for increasing confusion. I do not think people will stop to pay attention to a discussion of what the difference is between a “citizen’ and a “professional” archivist is. They will see that someone who volunteers to make copies of materials held by an archives and then posts them on another site is being called an archivist, and they may come away thinking that anyone who preserves copies of original materials is an archivist.

    All of this discussion is really academic, in a way. Unless Mr. Ferriero is planning to launch a major PR initiative to attract more “citizen archivists,” I don’t think the term will get much publicity. But he did bring up the question, so I thought it was important to provide some thoughtful dialogue (which all of you have done).

    The book I’m editing has an essay from Elizabeth Yakel on the changing role of archival authority in the 2.0 world, and so perhaps that is also in my mind as well. I think it’s important, for a host of reasons, to establish and maintain the role of the archivist as one of authority–not the only authority, not a supreme or all-knowing authority, but an authority. Now this is wandering off into a different topic, but that may explain in part why I’m more cautious about establishing precedents for granting perhaps too much perceived authority to online volunteers. They are valuable contributors and can be recognized as having authority in their own areas of expertise, but we must be recognized as having authority in the field of archives.

    But, as I said previously, I think a lot of this comes down to how we each perceive the term, and that will vary from person to person. It does seem to be a good starting point for a discussion of professional identity, however, doesn’t it? 😉

  9. “Citizen archivist” reminds me of communism and Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Why not just call them a volunteer? Everyone else does. Why do archivists have to be so much different?

  10. Good points, Kate, well stated. I can see where Mr. Ferriero is coming from in using the term “citizen archivist.” He’s aware of the extent to which NARA would benefit from more interaction and where appropriate collaboration with stakeholders. For some time, prior to Mr. Ferriero becoming Archivist, the agency has used the slogan “Democracy Starts Here” on its website. It’s the sort of inclusive approach often found on government websites. There’s an entire video focused on the concept of how citizens benefit from and use the records held by NARA.
    http://videocast.nih.gov/sla/NARA/dsh/index.html To think of one’s fellow citizens as a collaborative asset, as volunteers or participants in crowd sourcing, just builds on this concept.

    That said, “citizen archivists” probably won’t be the final term used for this by NARA, for the reasons that Kate articulated so well. I would add, however, that at NARA “citizen archivist” wouldn’t always be analogous to volunteer. A lot of volunteers at NARA actually are retirees from the agency. I don’t think the agency has a formal knowledge transfer program but I do know people who after retiring, return one or two days a week to work voluntarily, without salary, on projects.

    I doubt the term citizen archivist would be viewed as communistic by most people (certainly not by me, and I have relatives who lived under communist occupation). Rather, I see its usage as akin to that which Steve Ambrose used in his book, Citizen Soldiers: The U. S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany. The idea being, ordinary Americans, who made their living in different professions, came together to fight World War II, then returned to civilian life. Although the mission is not nearly as difficult, the idea of citizen participants seems merely to refer to the can-do spirit often shown in a nation with a relatively strong participatory heritage (with some obvious exclusions in earlier times, of course). We don’t now have a class system which determines early on what someone’s station in life will be. Not only that, there’s a strong tradition of volunteerism.

    Although I agree that a different term is needed, I certainly second Kate’s welcome of Mr. Ferriero to the world of blogging and also applaud the thought she put into her response to his call for reactions.

  11. I believe I’m one of the originators (if not the originator) of this term, first using it in a lecture at Pitt’s SIS in 2007. Richard Cox took up the term and has credited me for it in his new book “Personal Archives and a New Archival Calling.”

    My inspiration was, as the first Richard suggests, citizen science — specifically people like amateur ornithologists, amateur astronomers and professional wildlife rehabilitators who contribute to scientific discourse (including peer-reviewed journals) without being professionally credentialed or academically employed.

    I also believe that individuals working outside archival institutions already fulfill many functions we’ve historically associated with professional archivists. Beyond that, I felt that archivists needed to be more aware of their civic function, and therefore suggested that archivists needed to think more like citizens and citizens more like archivists.

    Grace Lile and Christine Di Bella have expressed my thoughts perhaps more eloguently than I could.

    If indeed I’m the originator, please shoot critical remarks my way!

  12. I don’t find the use of the term “archivist” by non-professionals objectionable, but I think there is a need to raise awareness about exactly what a professional archivist does. I don’t think “citizen archivist” helps raise that awareness and I agree with Kate that the term muddies the waters. In my upcoming book “Cultural Heritage Collaborators: A Manual for Community Documentation” I discuss Cultural Heritage Collaborators as those working to preserve cultural heritage and the documentary record. This group includes professionals in the LAM and quasi-professionals who are required to care for records, but who may not be as concerned about the cultural nature of items. This group includes people such as some records managers and municipal clerks. I identify a final group that I call the Non-professionals. These are people who have some interest in records or history, but who may not have the training or background to properly care for archival materials. This includes volunteers, civic association secretaries, business administrators and the like. I would like to see the development of “sexier” terms to describe each collaborator, but I also want to see the emphasis on partnership heightened. (I’m lack of a better term than sexy on a Sunday afternoon, so please forgive me.) If we can come up with terms that balance the idea of needing professional expertise to care for records for posterity with the idea that records are important to everyone, I think it would be a great service to our profession and would make great strides toward more effective outreach. “Unmudding” our terminology, as I discussed on my ArchivesInfo blog earlier this week, can only help us and lead to better care of archives in general.

  13. Thanks for triggering such an interesting debate, Kate.

    I have to take exception to part of what Rick Prelinger says, when he writes, “I also believe that individuals working outside archival institutions already fulfill many functions we’ve historically associated with professional archivists. Beyond that, I felt that archivists needed to be more aware of their civic function, and therefore suggested that archivists needed to think more like citizens and citizens more like archivists.”

    That may be true in part in certain settings but is not going to play out the same way in all settings. Unless citizens once held security clearances, they can never think exactly like federal archivists. And the archivists can’t explain to them what it is like to work with classified material and to release only part of what they see. One can’t discuss that which is not disclosable. It’s easier for researchers to get a sense of what it is like to work with old records held by an historical society, where the people involved are dead, have lost their privacy rights, and there are no national security implications to consider. NARA differs greatly from such entities. Since it is federal, and its intake consists of the permanent records of the U.S. government, much of its processing and projects work involves records which initially can only released in part. Some old classified records remain under seal for a long time. (I once saw a piece where Michael Kurtz of NARA discussed that.) It was easy for me to think like a citizen – I was one myself after all. It was not easy for me to explain our work ethos to others while I worked for NARA.

    The other complicating factor, which I’ve found a challenge to explain to people, is that genuine acceptance of objectivity. I once had a very frustrating conversation with a person who argued that all records, classified or not, relating to a certain foreign nation should be released because she hated that country and wanted it embarrassed. I firmly argued that laws and regulations applicable to one situation apply to all. But she seemed to find my perspective alien and baffling. I’ve seen other members of the public make other astonishing assertions about public access review. I’ve even heard some records professionals state in the past, while a president they had voted for was in office, that transparency and public access were overrated. It is very challenging to explain to such people that how they voted does not matter when it comes to issues of public access. aaIf arguing for objectivity and regulatory compliance is challenging within the archival community, it’s even harder to explain to citizens whose livelihood never has depended on setting aside personal biases and taking actions based solely on case law and legal precedents. There is only a tiny community of people who have done that at the federal level and educating the public at large about this is harder than it sounds.

  14. This is a great thread.

    There is a distinct difference between giving people the tools to create, contribute or share ownership in archives and cultural heritage, and the opportunity to assist archivists through volunteering. Academic or not, discussions about terminology may not be able to bridge what is essentially a cultural shift in how we do our work, and one that demonstrates some of the exciting challenges of applying the ideals of “web2.0” and the meritocracy of the World Wide Web to our endeavors.

    Of course, most archives are not open source projects. But still the issues around ownership, scholarship, and expertise, and the need to engage and build community around holdings are not mutually exclusive. Unless we make them so.

  15. Just to follow up some of the newer comments:

    My particular sense of “citizen archivist” connotes a person working _outside_ established institutions who is doing archival-quality work (not simply collecting), typically in an area that is neglected or inadequately addressed by established collections. Citizen archivists collect and add value to records of significance, many of which ultimately find their ways into institutions.

    Citizen archivists complement the work of professional archivists in the same way that collectors and scholars often do. I’m not trying to equate garden-variety collectors with archivists, but there are many collectors who are well aware of archival philosophies, practices and workflows, and whose practice might well be considered archival in whole or in part.

    At least in my field, which is moving images, a great deal of innovation emanates from the periphery rather than established institutions at the center of the archives field. Categories of material that the big archives never focused on collecting (amateur and home movies, educational and industrial films, regional productions, independent cinema, just to name a few) were first collected by unaffiliated archivists, who have also worked hard to contextualize and describe these materials. Independent archivists are also leading in areas like small-gauge film preservation, moving image digitization, tool development and workflow software.

    In saying all this, I’m not trying to minimize the importance and contributions of professionally trained and active archivists. I’m simply saying that established repositories run by professionals constitute only a portion, and I believe a shrinking portion, of the full spectrum of archives in the U.S.

    Oh, and Carl may remember differently, but I think you should blame _me_ for the term rather than him.

  16. Thanks for the explanation. While citizens collect records, NARA’s focus is on records obtained through the process of records management of government records. Those certainly can include citizens’ letters, as received and retained in federal departments’ and agencies’ records series designation as permanent. I’ve long urged scholars to make more use of such. Personal papers collections donated to some of the presidential libraries involve individuals who had some connection to the president and his administration. Citizen generated and collected material with no such connection wouldn’t fit the collection scope. I can see citizens helping archives, including NARA, in a number of volunteer and crowd sourcing activities. But given the NARA records intake process, they wouldn’t have an effect on the content of records acquired through federal records management beyond what I described above. I totally agree with Mr. Ferriero that NARA needs build on efforts to interact with citizens. I don’t think anyone is blaming Mr. Ferriero or anyone for using the term “citizen archivist,” we’re just debating (benignly) its applicability and the pros and cons of the image it conveys. As a former employee of the agency Mr. Ferriero now heads, I have a keen interest in such matters.

  17. This is an especially interesting thread, with people on all sides of the semiotic issue. For my own bid, I think the term is confusing, and not that catchy. Most people don’t even know what an archivist is, except for some hazy recollections from various movies, let alone a “citizen archivist.” If they are using this as a PR bid, I’m not convinced it will stay around. I also agree with Kate that it devalues the education and training required to be a professional archivist these days.

  18. I may be in the minority here, but it’s not so much the “archivist” part that annoys me but the “citizen” part.

    To me being a citizen means you have certain rights and responsibilities as part of the state in which you are a citizen of. We talk about being “good citizens” and I’ve seen people discuss that archivists can and should uphold the values “good citizens”. Shouldn’t all professional archivists be citizens in the fullest sense of the world in which they participate in society?

    “Citizen archivist” sounds to me like an archivist who is a good citizen.

    I can’t think of a term but perhaps something involving the word “contributor”? That sounds more serious than volunteer.

  19. I agree with this part of Rick’s comments:

    “My particular sense of “citizen archivist” connotes a person working _outside_ established institutions who is doing archival-quality work (not simply collecting), typically in an area that is neglected or inadequately addressed by established collections.”

    The advantage of these sorts of people is that they help document certain areas of society that might be difficult for traditional archives to approach because of political, bureaucratic, or financial factors.

    What’s needed for this concept to work, I think, is recognition from archivists and non-archivists alike in the work each group is doing, and, hopefully, some collaboration as well.

    If you’re going to be at the Fall MARAC meeting in Harrisburg, I’m chairing a panel that will be featuring such professional/non-professional documentary efforts, using Philadelphia (where I work) as a kind of case study. I’ll be opening the panel with more remarks on the whole citizen archivist topic. I really thought this topic was of somewhat marginal interest, so it’s great to see this level of engagement from everybody. Hope some of y’all can make it to Harrisburg and mix it up.

  20. I would just like to comment on Jordan’s point by saying that collaboration is key. (Sorry Jordan, though I agree with everything else you said, I cringed at the word “hopefully” when describing collaboration.) We need to understand what work is being done to create and collect archives by societies and we must work together to ensure adequate documentation and care. I think that this is an area where many communities are failing and whole bits of historical documentation are being lost because we don’t look to our non-professional partners to expand out vision of what it is that we do and what types of records we should be collecting. Whether or not we call non-archivists interested in the work we do “citizen archivists” or not, it is more important to make sure they are included in what we do and are viewed as collaborators for preserving archives. Finding a nice term to make them feel part of the process would be wonderful if it promotes our work and the security of the historical record.

  21. Hi, Jordon, I totally agree about the value of non-governmental collections and the role private citizens play in ensuring material is preserved. And you’re absolutely right that you have to turn to multiple sources for information on some topics, especially as they relate to a city. In my history research on topics related to Washington, I’ve used government records at NARA and non-governmental material elsewhere. There’s some good material in the Washingtonian Division of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library (the central public library) in D.C. The latter houses the old Evening Star newspaper collection, great stuff about the city of Washington, its neighborhoods, and social history. I love that sort of thing and am grateful that it was preserved.

    I recently read an interesting new book about Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall (Root and Branch) which drew on material at the Howard University archives. If I were writing about the civil rights era, I definitely would draw on both governmental and non-governmental material so as to include multiple perspectives and voices. But I wouldn’t expect NARA to be able to intake much material beyond what comes in to it through regular records management. And I haven’t heard anyone say it should do that. That would be like saying CNN should intake archival material relating to Coca Cola because both are located in Atlanta. The archives for each holds material centered on its product. NARA’s happens to be the federal government. That’s why I don’t think that part of the citizen archivist was what Mr. Ferriero was focusing on. I think he was referring to getting input from citizens on archival activities, tapping into citizens’ talents and interests, enabling people to more readily identify unidentified individuals and sites in photos, that sort of thing. I can see NARA encouraging general awareness of heritage issues, too. But its collection scope is set by law and its activities funded by appropriations.

  22. Great thread. I think I’d like to see us all as “comrade archivists,” but that’s just me. This is getting back to some of those big tent discussions. of a year or so ago. As Rick and Jordon point out, there is a need for people to do archival work, outside of a traditional archival setting. In my mind, you could just call these people archivists. What is the distinction between them and us? If they are doing the same kind of work, the only real differences are whether you are doing it well, poorly, or somewhere in between.

    As for people doing volunteer work, I agree with the earlier comments. These are often really not archivists, despite their value to the cause – and if you’re substituting untrained volunteers for archivists you risk a diminished program *and* you are stealing work from your colleagues.

    You are right Melissa about the collaboration. We need to start seeing commonalities with people doing archival work and stop looking for differences.

  23. Thanks all–and particularly, Rick, the father of the term!–for your thoughtful participation. I’m working on a post that summarizes the discussion and raises some new points, so I hope you’ll continue the discussion on the new post.

  24. Pingback: Impact | NixoNARA

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.