Friday, February 22, 2013

Back to MIT to hear about NARA’s plans for records access

Round table discussion at MIT Media Lab
Civic Media Lunch:  Providing Innovative Access to the Content in National Archives Records

I heard about this workshop through one of my husband’s MIT alumni networks, and then I heard again from Kate Theimer of the Archives Next blog on Twitter.  She wanted to know if anyone was going to the discussion, and I decided “Why not?”  Perhaps someone from the genealogical community should be there, listening in.  I love going back to the MIT campus, and the subject was right up my alley: “Providing Innovative Access to the Content in National Archives Records”

This lunchtime talk was open to the MIT community, and I may have been one of the few people there who was not a student, research fellow, MIT archivist or media lab employee.  It was not aimed at the end user (me, the genealogist) but at the developers and designers of the computer platforms and technology that drives our online experiences.  This discussion was a behind the scenes peek (for me) at the problems, hurdles and headaches of archiving 12 billion pieces of paper and electronic records, and making some of them safe for long term storage, and some of them also accessible to the public.

At this meeting were Michael Moore from the NARA facility in Waltham, MA, and his “boss”, Bill Mayer who is the head of Executive Research Services for all of NARA.  The main part of the presentation was by Pamela Wright, who used to be NARA’s Chief Digital Access Strategist (their social media guru), but is now the Chief Innovation Officer.  This department was formed in October 2012.

To read the blow by blow description of the meeting, you can read the blog by the students who were sitting right in front of me, liveblogging the seminar.  But here is what I took away from this meeting, as a genealogist and local historian…

The first item that I found to be great news was that there are Regional Residency  Fellowships available at the 6 NARA facilities around the USA.  See the website for details.  Wouldn't that be a wonderful way to fund some solid genealogy or local history projects?  This is a $3,000 stipend to assist with travel and research expenses for the completion of a research project which results in a publishable work.  You must work fast, the deadline for proposals is March 15, 2013.  The Boston/Waltham facility is one of the fellowship locations on the list.

Next, I found out that NARA’s website “Today’s Document” and the mobile apps for this were their first foray into social media in 2009.  This was the very first app I got for my iPhone three years ago, quickly followed by Twitter, Facebook and Ancestry (in that order). Pam learned that to make it successful she needed to have it on many platforms, including Tumblr.  David Ferreiro, the US Archivist at the head of NARA then asked Pam, “Where do you go when you go on line?”, and she knew that Google and Wikipedia were at the head of her list.  She hired a “Wikiepedian in residence” for NARA.  He was a Simmons Library School Graduate.  He put hundreds of thousands of NARA images online.   Their presence online grew tremendously after this.

Check the website for the Citizen Archivist dashboard.  This was designed to leverage the willingness and participation of the public (crowdsourcing) to help get useful information about documents online.   There are several places here to assist NARA with online scanned images of documents, including “You can Tag It”, to add tags to images and records partnered with Flickr and the online NARA catalog, and also “You can Transcribe It” to help transcribe documents at beginner, intermediate and advanced levels.  No log in is necessary, so there is no barrier to participation.  They also plan some challenge competitions as they venture towards more public help.

These last two places for the public to get involved reminded me of the chance we all had to help transcribe and index the 1940 census.  If you enjoyed that experience, this would be very similar.

The end of the meeting dwelt on describing the data sets that would eventually be available and open to the public, including government email, taxes, military and other electronic documents.  There are sets of old data in unstructured form from platforms 30 to 40 years old that must be manipulated to new platforms.  Format obsolescence is the key word here.  After librarians dealt with paper documents in the same way for 6,000 years, now they have 60 years of bit stream to archive and keep relevant.  Pamela Wright explained that paper has preservation and access issues, but with electronic records access equals preservation.  (Data tends to stays up to date if that data is still available to users in a relevant way.)

Halfway through the meeting I remembered that Pamela Wright was the NARA person who sent me a now famous email about my trip to the Washington DC NARA facility in March 2011.  During my trip to DC I was denied access to see a copy of my ancestor’s Revolutionary War paper in person, and I was told I could only see it on microfilm.  I had already seen it online at Fold3, and was hoping that if I saw it in person I could discern if the signature was George Washington’s, or a facsimile or stamp. However, I now know it was a real George Washington signature, since the original had been removed for safekeeping away from the public.  She read my blog and sent me a color, high quality scan that certainly proved it was truly the president’s signature in penYou can read that blog story here.   At the end of the talk I introduced myself to Pamela and we had a good time reminiscing about that incident.  Small world indeed!

This is what greeted me as I got off the
elevator at the MIT Media Lab-
legos, foozeball and strange sculptures!

Please see the MIT blog for more details.  I understand that the meeting was videoed, but it is probably for MIT use only.  I asked Pam Wright if she or any other NARA staff would be present at RootsTech 2013 in Salt Lake City, and she did not know.

For more information:

Archives Next blog by Kate Theimer

MIT Center for Civic Media

MIT Center for Civic Media event calendar, “Innovative Access to National Archives” link:

MIT Center for Civic Media blog “Bringing a Nation’s Archives Online” by Matt Stempeck, research assistant

National Archives website

2013 Regional Residency Fellowship: Request for Proposals

NARA Citizen Archivist Dashboard

My NARA blog post from 2011 with the email from Pamela Wright

Copyright 2013, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. I love the citizen archivist dashboard. A friend who is a PhD student pointed it out to me last year. Such a great website. You are right, it does remind me of the 1940 Census project.

  2. Great post, Heather. Tons of useful information, including the 'Today's Document' app. Thanks!

  3. This is wonderful, to hear about all this intelligence and money being directed towards helping the public have access to online records. Before the last decade, we could never have dreamed that this would happen. Thanks for this post, Heather!

  4. Heather,

    I just wanted to let you know that this blog post and your blog post "Was Your Ancestor A Mason?" are listed in today's Fab Finds post at

  5. Thanks for blogging the event, Heather. The video will actually be online shortly at the same blog post ( as soon as it's ready.