David S. Ferriero at the Closing Plenary at Wikimania 2012
Prepared Remarks of Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero at the Closing Plenary at Wikimania 2012, Lisner Auditorium, George Washington University, Washington, DC
July 14, 2012
Thanks to the Wikimedia Foundation for inviting me to be a part of Wikimania 2012. The National Archives is proud to be a partner for this conference. I’m a big fan of Wikipedia, for reasons I’ll discuss in a moment.
And I’m now a huge fan of all of you here today, who are leading the way in connecting Wikipedia with the GLAM community—Galleries, Libraries, Archives, and Museums. After all these years, it is nice to finally have my community recognized as GLAM!
The National Archives has a unique role, which we describe as “preserving the past to protect the future.” The beautiful sculptures designed by Robert I. Aitken and chiseled by the Piccarelli Brothers of the Bronx at our Pennsylvania Avenue entrance echo this.
“The Past” is represented by an ancient bearded man with a scroll and “The Future” is a young woman with a book—which could be an iPad! She sits atop a pedestal inscribed with “The Past is Prologue.”
As Archivist of the United States, a bit of my personal prologue may also be instructive. I graduated college just before Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple. The Internet? An interesting DARPA technology experiment. I still remember when the very first fax machine replaced Telex in the telecommunications office at MIT. When the fax was received it was immediately put into campus mail for delivery!
And when the Christian Science Monitor was experimenting with delivery by microwave—delivery across the river to a printer in my library reading room on the MIT campus. And the world of microforms, mediated database searching, and CD-ROM towers.
Coping with dizzying changes in information technology has certainly been a challenge for those of us who got our start back in the day.
But I would argue that the institutions where many of us built careers confront an even bigger challenge than replacing Selectric typewriters with networked PCs: those institutions struggle with replacing traditional ways of thinking with new ones. That challenge has been especially daunting for archives and libraries and museums, which are often more comfortable preserving the past than embracing and, more importantly, anticipating the future. I still remember the (at the time) seminar article written by a research library director in the 1960s predicting that the computer had no future in libraries.
Which brings me to Wikipedia.
If you look up Charles Van Doren in Wikipedia, the first thing you’ll see is that he was caught up in 1950’s quiz show scandals. But he was also a distinguished scholar and editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Van Doren once said, “Because the world is radically new, the ideal encyclopedia should be radical, too.”
Wikipedia’s challenge is that archives and libraries and museums tend to be wary of anything radical.
So, let’s talk about some ways of meeting that challenge. I’ll start by bragging about the evolving relationship between the National Archives and Wikipedia, and then try to draw some lessons that may be useful for other cultural institutions, and perhaps even for the future of our democracy.
I know that some of you have used the National Archives for scholarly or personal research. And I hope that some of you got to attend one of the several tours we offered to Wikimania participants over the last few days.
The core mission of the National Archives remains unchanged from the day we were created as a Federal agency in 1934. We preserve records that are created by the United States government—more than 275 agencies and the White House and we provide courtesy storage for the Records of Congress. For Federal agencies we preserve that 2%–3% of all government records that are important for legal or historical reasons.
That may not sound like very much but we now hold approximately 12 billion sheets of paper (which translates into 1.4m trees and laid end to end would circle the globe 84 times); 18 million maps, charts, and architectural drawings; miles of film and video records; and 42 million photographs; 550,000 artifacts and 5.3 billion electronic records.
In our collection you’ll find the most important documents in our history starting with the oaths of allegiance signed by George Washington and his troops at Valley Forge to the Tweets being generated by the White House as I speak. And of course––the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights—our Charters of Freedom.
We have records in facilities around the country:
14 Regional Archives,
17 Federal Records Centers,
13 Presidential Libraries,
The National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, and
Our Facilities in the Washington, DC, area.
And that collection is growing, especially the electronic records. To give you a sense of the scale: we house 8 million e-mails from the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, 20 million e-mails from the Clinton Administration. And 240 million from the George W. Bush administration.
While our core mission remains unchanged, the National Archives is very much a living organization, one that evolves to meet new challenges.
When the Archives began, the challenge was just finding the records.
Twenty years later, the sheer volume of government records was a huge problem and in the 21st century, one of our biggest challenges is finding ways to preserve records when information technology changes so rapidly, often making last year’s records obsolete.
At the same time, the National Archives is about more than simply keeping records safe and sound. Thomas Jefferson said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” To keep democracy healthy and vibrant, I believe strongly that currency must be circulated, available and put to use by as many people as possible.
Here’s how President Obama put it when he issued his Open Government Directive: “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.”
On his first day in office, in a meeting with his Senior Staff, he laid out the foundation of his administration, a foundation which certainly resonated with this librarian, minding his own business at the New York Public Library. He said:
“Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that Government does not have all the answers, and that public officials need to draw on what citizens know.
“And that’s why, as of today, I’m directing members of my administration to find new ways of tapping the knowledge and expertise of ordinary Americans--scientists and civic leaders, educators and entrepreneurs—because the way to solve the problems of our time, as one nation, is by involving the American people in shaping policies that affect their lives.”
And this citizen engagement is something which I have taken to heart as I have assumed my duties as Archivist of the United States.
Last month, when I announced the release of our updated Open Government Plan for 2012–2014, I noted that we have dramatically increased our participation with Wikipedia since the last open government plan 2 years ago. In introducing the plan, I wrote that our work with Wikipedia is changing the way we think about our own archival work.
At the Archives, the concepts of openness and access are embedded in our mission. And the work we do every day is rooted in the belief that citizens have the right to see, examine, and learn from the records that guarantee citizen’s rights, document government actions, and tell the story of the nation.
My biggest challenge is visibility. Not everyone knows who we are, what we do, or, more importantly, the amazing resources we collect and house. A lesson I learned during my time in New York was that it isn’t good enough to create great digital collections and sit back and expect people to find you. You need to be where the people are. So, our efforts are focused on getting our content onto all of the existing and emerging Web 2.0 platforms.
Right now you’ll find us on YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, FourSquare, and on many, many blogs. We use Ideascale to ask for public and staff input on projects. We have launched projects on the White House's Challenge.gov platform.
We are sharing open source code on GitHub, and we have several social media platforms of our own, including Our Archives Wiki and the Citizen Archivist Dashboard, and we have mobile apps available for both Android and IOS.
And we are streamlining ways for the public to connect with us and contribute as well through our Citizen Archivist Dashboard, a portal which puts members of the public to work on tasks like tagging our catalog records and indexing our census records, but also in transcribing National Archives documents on Wikisource and improving articles on Wikipedia.
Our growing relationship with Wikipedia is one of the newest and most important ways we are making real the public’s rights to see, examine and learn from records.
To introduce you to the evolving relationship between the National Archives and Wikipedia, let me tell you about a young man, who has been one of our speakers at this week’s conference.
His name is Dominic McDevitt-Parks, a graduate student at my alma mater, Simmons College. He’s wicked young and describes himself as “history buff, a word nerd, a news junkie and an occasional pedant.” Most importantly, he is the Archives’ first Wikipedian in Residence. He is in a rather exclusive club.
There are only a handful of these folks in the world who have the responsibility of fostering collaboration among the Wikipedia and GLAM communities. And I know several current and former Wikipedians in Residence are in the room! Ranging from as near to us as the Smithsonian to as far away as Sweden.
When we brought Dominic on board in May 2011, our hope was that by hosting a Wikipedian in Residence, and by talking about the benefits of working with the Wikimedia Foundation, the National Archives would help lead the GLAM charge. Since then 16 of our peer institutions around the world have brought Wikipedians on board––that’s according to the Wikipedian-In-Residence page on Wikipedia, of course.
We know first-hand that many Wikipedians in the United States—as well as an impressive and growing array of institutions—have been working hard in the past year to build a strong community that will be able to guide the future of GLAM partnerships. And I welcome the announcement of the GLAM-Wiki Consortium earlier this week, and thank Lori Phillips, Wikimedia’s U.S. Cultural Partnerships Coordinator, for her pioneering work in GLAM for the United States.
Founder Jimmy Wales, described Wikipedia’s goal this way: “to give a free encyclopedia to every person in the world, in their own language. Not just in a “free beer” kind of way, but also in the free speech kind of way.”
So it won’t surprise you that our Wikipedian in Residence is not just giving the public “free beer”––access to permanent records of the Archives; but he is also encouraging people to use those records “in a free speech kind of way.” He works to get as many online volunteers as possible to discuss, react to, and build on that content.
Here’s an example: the Archives web site has a feature called “Today’s Document”––it’s a photo or a document with a small explanatory blurb, one we think would be especially interesting to the public. When we posted a photo of the first African American recruit for the U.S. Marine Corps, Dominic worked to get it placed on Wikipedia’s main page. He challenged the Wikipedia community––in a nice National Archives way––to learn more about the photo, and even write an article about it. Sure enough, it led to a brand new Wikipedia article about desegregation in the Marine Corps.
Our Wikipedian-in-Residence program, and the new and better forms of cooperation he’s developing with the Wikipedia community even as we speak, started well over a year ago, when the National Archives hosted the Washington, D.C. celebration of Wikipedia’s 10th anniversary in 2011.
Over 90 Wikipedians enjoyed lightening talks, unconference sessions, and behind-the-scene tours of the stacks of the National Archives. It was a meeting of the minds among National Archives staff, who introduced our records and online resources and Wikipedians who taught us more about this terrific information resource.
At the event, one Wikipedian blogger wrote,
“Now we can all say: If Wikipedia is good enough for the Archivist of the United States, maybe it should be good enough for you.”
Our work with Wikipedia is not only good enough, it’s great for us because it takes our goals of transparency, public participation, and collaboration to a new level. And since that first meeting, the National Archives has continued to collaborate with the Wikimedia community.
We have hosted several events on our sites across the county, including a multi-day GLAMcamp D.C. last February, as well as the first Wikipedian scanathon in Kansas City, at our regional facility there earlier this summer, an event at the Reagan Library in Southern California, and several more in the DC area.
Texts from the National Archives that have been transcribed and verified on Wikisource are linked to directly from our catalog on archives.gov. Wikimedia Commons now contains over 90,000 digital images from our records, and more will continue to be added. We value the contributions Wikimedians have made as citizen archivists. And we share many of the same values with the Wikimedia Foundation: collaboration, innovation, and the sharing of free knowledge.
You know, when the bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed so many banks, Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” The Archives is involved with Wikipedia because that’s where the people are.
Just a couple of examples: We’re very proud of the National Archives web site, especially since we re-launched it last year. It’s less cluttered, easier to navigate, and allows researchers from amateurs to professionals to better find what they’re looking for. And our entire web site, which includes 20,000 web pages, got over 17 million visits last year. Not bad.
Our “Today’s Document,” which I mentioned earlier, is currently available as both iPhone and Android apps, as well as a popular Tumblr blog. Since we launched these, the apps have been downloaded over 50,000 times and the Tumblr blog has a following of over 25,000. Not bad either. BUT when that single Marine Corps photo appeared on the main Wikipedia page, it was viewed at least 4 million, million, times in 8 hours.
Another example: I’ve known that battleships are a big deal on Wikipedia. The English Wikipedia has a vibrant community of editors which has created a tremendous amount of quality content. Well, last year, in commemoration of the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the featured article on Wikipedia’s main page was the ”USS Arizona”—the battleship sunk during the battle.
There were multiple National Archives images used in the article, includes two of the images that were digitized on request by staff from NARA’s Still Pictures division. That article received over 150,000 views in two days (making it one of Wikipedia’s most viewed featured articles). One of the article’s primary authors was in the audience when I spoke at the Wikipedia in Higher Education Summit in Boston almost one year ago. That same editor, Eddie Erhart, is in the audience again today. Thanks, Eddie. And thanks, also, to your co-editor, Jason Long, who couldn’t be with us today.
Overall, 42 percent of Americans turn to Wikipedia for information, so it’s a terrific way for us to make Archives content more transparent and available.
And I’ve been part of that 42 percent for a long time. In fact, it’s often the first place I go for information.
Now I have to admit, that Wikipedia first got my attention when I was at the New York Public Library, and I came across my own profile on the site. Someone, who is unknown to me even today, had put it up. And it was very fair and complete—except for my date of birth! Which I corrected. So, if you’re in the audience, thanks!
To be sure, not everyone is as enthusiastic about Wikipedia as I am. Which brings me to my last quote about encyclopedias. The first person I quoted today was a scholar, the second was a founder, and this one was a major league catcher––Yogi Berra. Yogi said, “I'm not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did.”
Okay. This is probably one of those quotes that is too good to be true. But it illustrates the misunderstandings that can arise around a reference source.
In my view, that’s the case with Wikipedia and cultural and academic institutions. For many information professionals in higher education and in archives, Wikipedia is suspect. I’ve heard the concerns about accuracy and reliability, as I’m sure you have.
And yet, comparative studies by neutral observers show errors do not appear more frequently in Wikipedia than its printed counterparts. I would argue that the power people have to flag or change incorrect or biased content means errors can be fixed and neutrality contested.
But what about you? What can those of you who believe in Wikipedia do to overcome skepticism and strengthen the ties between your institutions and this great resource?
First of all, keep doing what you’re doing. At the Archives we’ve found that the best way to overcome misconceptions about Wikipedia is to encourage people to use and work with it.
In particular, encourage your colleagues to write for Wikipedia. It is a terrific learning opportunity––exposing staff to the experience of collaboration, feedback, and even conflict in pursuit of new knowledge. In addition, instead of telling staff and the public to shun Wikipedia, our institutions should be critical consumers of information, an increasingly important tool in the digital age.
And as Wikipedians, be bold … but collegial. Together, with the Wikimedia Foundation, we can work to expose GLAM staffs to the terrific ways the free encyclopedia can help them achieve their institution’s mission.
Some advice to our international visitors: get to know the Archivist of your country. He or she can use your help. And would welcome your interest and passion. I’ll be in Australia in August meeting with them urging them to reach out to you!
And if all else fails, you can tell them that “if it’s good enough for the Archivist…we should at least take a look at it.”