I’m back from a busy four days at THATCamp CHNM (aka THATCamp Prime). I’ll start by discussing the fascinating presentation by Pamela Wright, Chief Digital Access Strategist at the National Archives and Records Administration about the Citizen Archivist Dashboard, online projects created with the recently-released 1940 census data, and other exciting digital projects from “our nation’s attic.” I thought Sharon Leon‘s choice to use an interview format was excellent and made for a much more dynamic and engaging forum than a straight-up presentation. The Citizen Archivist Dashboard grew out of the Open Government Platform initiated by President Obama. The goal of Citizen Archivist is to make NARA’s documents more accessible while also serving as a forum for engaging the public in the intellectual work that makes accessibility happen. Pam realized that simply opening the archive’s data to the public without any guidelines would be like dumping out a load of raw cake batter: it might be yummy for the most dedicated enthusiasts (e.g. “Lincoln Lady”) but most people would like to have a “cupcake” — i.e. a specific task or subject on which to work (e.g. the Titanic is the featured “cupcake” right now).
So far, Citizen Archivist has been wildly popular: within two weeks of going live, the archive received 1,000 page transcriptions (by contrast it took Sharon several years to reach the same number of transcribed pages for the Papers of the War Department). The 1940 census received 20 million hits the morning it went live. Pam hoped that one of the hackers at THATCamp or elsewhere would design a “pocket archivist” app that would allow users to upload images while they are doing research at NARA. She also asked for suggestions for other topics and projects to add to the initiative.
Another way that NARA engaged the public was in the redesign of its website. They received 4 choices from the designer and then let the public vote on which one they liked best. Voters overwhelmingly chose the simplest design (which many at NARA found too minimalist). This is something to keep in mind as my colleagues and I set out to redesign our department website. Perhaps we should survey our students to see what they want from a website?