Society of American Archivists article "NARA’s Innovation Hub Expands Access to Records"
The core mission of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) is to provide public access to Federal Government records. For the first six decades of our existence, that access primarily meant making the records available in research rooms or through paper and film facsimiles.
In the mid-1990s, we began to radically broaden access by putting records descriptions and digital copies of documents online, available to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Since then, NARA’s online resources have continued to grow, and the National Archives Catalog now has 44 million pages available online.
Most recently, additions to the Catalog are coming from members of the public as well as from NARA staff. Citizen archivists tag and transcribe records in the Catalog and also contribute digitized images when they scan documents in the Innovation Hub.
The Innovation Hub at the National Archives was established in July 2015 as a place dedicated to incubating, accelerating, and promoting innovative projects. Students learn about handwritten documents and transcribe them for our Catalog. Scan-a-thons and hack-a-thons bring in groups of people to target records under a chosen theme. Wikipedians meet in the Hub throughout the year. And researchers scan records for both their own use and to upload to the Catalog.
The Hub, located in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, has two sections: a meeting area and a citizen scanning room. In the scanning room, researchers may use the scanners for free; in exchange, they agree to scan at least one complete folder of material. Citizen scanners take home copies of those digital files, and a copy goes to our online Catalog.
In May 2018, the Innovation Hub uploaded its 300,000th page to the National Archives Catalog—a milestone that took less than three years to achieve. The most popular documents scanned in the Hub are those of genealogical interest. Thanks to our researchers’ efforts, we have 2,300 Civil War pension files, 4,100 Compiled Military Service Records, 600 bounty land files, and more than 200 Coast Guard logbooks digitized and online for worldwide access.
In addition to genealogical records, the Hub has promoted some special projects and “Boxes of the Month.” Anyone with a National Archives researcher card can come to the Hub, select records in the Box of the Month, and scan without worrying about finishing the entire file.
The other half of the Innovation Hub—the meeting room—hosts a number of meetings and events throughout the year. The very first event in the Innovation Hub welcomed educators enrolled in the Primarily Teaching workshop. During their session, they scanned 432 pages on Chinese immigration to be included in both DocsTeach, our online tool for teaching with documents, and our Catalog.
In 2017 we hosted colleagues from the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, and other cultural institutions to discuss their potential participation in History Hub, an online platform where experts and researchers share information.
Our current project in the Innovation Hub is digitizing 100,000 pages of logbooks of Coast Guard vessels that served in the Vietnam War. Coast Guard veterans today use these logbooks to establish service for Veterans Administration claims, and making these records available online helps them do so more easily. In April, the Innovation Hub held a scan-a-thon to promote this digitization project. Thanks to our citizen scanners, we exceeded our goal of 2,000 pages and scanned a total of 2,314 pages in one day.
Digital access to our records is a key goal in our strategic plan. Access involves not just the digitized record but also useful descriptions and easy ways to find the records. Through its scanning activities, the workshops it hosts, and the partnerships it builds, the Innovation Hub is one way we are tackling that challenge.