National Archives' first Wikipedian in residence to bring more holdings to the public

In January 1874, early feminist icon Susan B. Anthony petitioned Congress to remit a fine she'd received for illegally voting in the 1872 presidential election, 47 years before the 19th Amendment gave women the franchise.

Until recently, anyone hoping to read that petition would have been limited to a few scanned pages from the original document posted on the National Archives website or would have had to travel to Washington to take a look at the source document itself.

Earlier this summer, though, the National Archives' first Wikipedian in residence, graduate student Dominic McDevitt-Parks, put out a call to volunteer transcribers on Wikisource, the user-generated online encyclopedia's sister site for primary documents, who banded together to turn Anthony's 19th century curlicued script into simple, searchable Web text. The document is now awaiting a final validation before it goes online.

Anthony's petition is just one of about 40 documents McDevitt-Parks has sent out to volunteer Wiki-transcribers during his six weeks at the Archives -- some dating as far back as Alexander Hamilton's commission to the rank of full colonel in October 1783, a month after the British had officially given up the American colonies, and others as recent as pages from President Nixon's official diary from January 1969, his first month in office.

McDevitt-Parks also has posted new photos and other documents from the National Archives to Wikipedia with the goal of enticing volunteer authors to write articles around them. One of the first photos he posted was of Howard Perry, the first black Marine recruit after the Corps was desegregated in 1942. That article prompted another Wikipedian to write a full article on desegregation in the Marine Corps, which was briefly featured on the site's home page.

A series of Ansel Adams photos, which the National Park Service commissioned in the 1940s, prompted a contributor to write a short article on an Adams photo of Cartridge Creek near Fresno, Calif.

"There's just so much potential, so much stuff here," said McDevitt-Parks, a Simmons College graduate student in history and archives management and a seven-year Wikipedia editor. "In reality, you could have a whole department of Wikipedians in residence and still have work to do."

In the absence of a full department, McDevitt-Parks is using his summer-long fellowship to begin the long process of organizing Wikipedia's volunteer workforce around the National Archives' vast holdings.

For the Archives, that's meant encouraging staff to upload scans of Archive documents and digitized photos to Wikipedia or Wiksource in addition to Flickr or other sites that are more common photo repositories but where they can't tap into Wikipedia's crowd sourcing model.

For Wikipedians, that's meant whipping up some excitement in the online community about the chance of bringing the Archive's holdings to a wider audience through organized projects and challenges.

A major barrier, McDevitt-Parks said, is the quality of the Archives' digitized files, the most important of which were scanned in the 1990s using early technology that makes them difficult to read online.

"So now we have all these really important documents, like the original draft of the Marbury v. Madison decision, digitized by 1990s standards," he said. "They're 3-megabyte files and if you zoom in they get all blurry. If you digitized them now, it would be a 50-megabyte file. Unfortunately, it's hard to [make the case to] go back and scan things that are already scanned when there are millions and millions of things that aren't in any digitized form at all."

Another challenge, he said, has been simply being overwhelmed by the vastness of the Archives' holdings, the majority of which haven't even been cataloged, much less digitized or posted online.

His request list for Wikisource transcribers, for example, includes the protest letter the final queen of independent Hawaii sent to Congress when the United States annexed the island in 1898. It also includes a claim escaped slave and underground railroad worker Harriet Tubman made to the U.S. government that same year to collect her pension for work as a Union spy during the Civil War. Neither document has ever been posted online in clear, typed prose.

The Wikipedian in residence model has been adopted in numerous cultural institutions in the United States and abroad. Cooperation between Wikipedians and private museums has sometimes been stymied, though, by ideological disagreements between Wikipedians, who generally favor absolutely free information, and some museums that prefer to keep access to selected works proprietary, McDevitt-Parks said.

Some might expect Archives staff to be hesitant about opening more of their collection to the vicissitudes of the sometimes-erroneous and highly hackable site.

But most Archives staff see cooperation with Wikipedia as a chance to improve the site's accuracy and to get information out to people where they're already looking for it, McDevitt-Parks said.

"If we ever felt like we were in competition with Wikipedia, we lost that battle a long time ago," he said, noting that a Google search on the Declaration of Independence brings up the Wikipedia entry first, far above the National Archives' article.

"We used to be in the 20th century mind-set of access," he said, "open research rooms so people can come and look at our collections. But we're moving into an era where having open access means more than that. You don't have to have physical access to a facility to have access to its holdings and Wikipedia is one of the best models for that."