Celebrating real “citizen archivists”

During the discussion a few weeks ago about how people think the term “citizen archivist” should be used I started collecting references to people who I think provide good examples of real citizen archivists. Again we are talking here about:

people who take 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. [my phrasing]

people working _outside_ established institutions who are 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. [Rick Prelinger’s phrasing]

Celebrating the work of these kinds of community or amateur archivists acknowledges what we all know–that the archival community is larger than the archival profession itself. We know we certainly don’t have enough paid archivists to care for all the world’s valuable records and documents; the world needs people to step forward and take responsibility for documenting the people and places they care about and preserving their history. And, of course in some cases a community may want to retain responsibility for maintaining their own records rather than turn over custody of their collections to an archival repository. There are many reasons why people step forward to become what some people call “citizen archivists,” but surely they all share the kind of dedication to preserving historical materials that inspires many professional archivists.

Here are a few of the examples I’ve run across:

  • The work of the late Mayme A. Clayton in assembling one of the largest and most important collections of rare and out-of-print books, manuscripts, documents, films, music, photographs and memorabilia documenting African-American culture.
  • The ACTUP Oral History Project
  • The Prajnya Archives for the visual documentation of women in public life in South Asia
  • If you’re a member of SAA you can find another example in the most recent issue of Archival Outlook which has an article describing the work of the admirable citizen archivist, Erica DeGlopper, who took responsibility for the Art Shay photography collection. (May/June 2010 issue, what, no hat tip, SAA to the discussion on this blog about the term? Tsk, tsk!)

    But as I said these are just the examples I’ve run across recently–I’m sure you know of others. Please share in the comments your suggestions for people or organizations that you think qualify as citizen archivists!

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    10 thoughts on “Celebrating real “citizen archivists””

    1. Met Bo Sullivan last week while attending a panel discussion for librarian students here in PDX. Bo was for a long time an employee of Rejuvanation, a period restoration and hardware company. He has gone out on his own via his consulting company @arcalus. In the meantime he has assembled a fantastic library/archives described here http://arcalus.com/what/. Bo is an awesome guy and while still working out how access to the collection will work, he has been very open to both allowing tours of the archives and to serving as a reference outlet for questions other area archivists have received.

    2. AOTUS recently spotlighted an individual who discovered a Revolutionary War diary in NARA’s holdings as a “model citizen archivist.” By your definition, do you agree with that characterization?

    3. Judy–No. Mr. Ferriero and I disagree on how this term should be used. Mr. Ferriero seems to want it applied to anyone who contributes in any way to the expansion of knowledge about archival collections. I agree that the contributions of these people should be encouraged and celebrated, but I believe referring to them as “archivists” in any capacity is a mistake. There was lengthy discussion about this issue in previous posts which you might want to go back and review if you missed it.

    4. Yes, I read those discussions very carefully and even wrote about them in the latest issue of our genealogical journal. I just wanted to make sure. I and some of my fellow genealogists find Mr. Ferriero’s approach very encouraging.

    5. Judy–I’m glad you found them useful. Can you send me a link to your journal article?

      I’m on record as saying I agree with you that Mr. Ferriero’s approach is great and I am glad to see him reaching out and encouraging more engagement with the public. I just wish he’d use a different phrase to refer to the contributors, collaborators, and researchers who are such a vital part of the larger archival community.

    6. Shannon,

      I don’t see this effort as specifically tied to the data.gov (see http://archivesnext.com/?p=967) except that both are pursuing the goals of the administration’s Open Government Directive, which encourages agencies to “promote new lines of communication and cooperation between the federal government and the American people.” A more direct inspiration is probably the citizen science movement (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Citizen_science), and as someone pointed out in a previous comment, Mr. Ferriero’s former colleague at the NYPL, Josh Greenberg, has spoken about “citizen humanities” (http://www.tvworldwide.com/events/webwise/100303/default.cfm?tab=2 see Session 2), so that’s also probably a more specific reference.

      I think if Mr. Ferriero had begun a dialogue with the archival profession about the concept of “citizen archives” (analogous to citizen science), and talked more broadly about expanding and capitalizing on the role of volunteers (as in citizen science), he might have had more success winning over the archival community to his use of the term. But winning over the archival community was not his goal. He wanted to launch a public initiative on his blog, and he has managed to do that.

      I think the idea of “citizen archives” is an interesting one, although in many respects it would only be a recognition of the way many archives have operated for a long time. I will be incorporating this idea into an essay I’m currently working on, so I suppose I owe Mr. Ferriero a thank-you note for raising the issue.


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