Prologue Magazine

Volunteers—and the Impact They’re Having

Winter 2012, Vol. 44, No. 4

By David S. Ferriero

Archivist of the United States


One of the things that has most impressed me since I came to the National Archives three years ago is the work of our corps of dedicated, knowledgeable volunteers.

What they do for us, and for the American people, is amazing.

They write hundreds of item-level descriptions, annotate thousands of photo captions, and assist with digitization projects so the past that is recorded on paper isn't left behind in the digital era.

They index tens of thousands of records, answer researchers' questions, write articles about the records for this magazine and posts for our blogs, and present lectures to the public.

That's some of what they do as volunteers. These volunteers are essentially what we now refer to as "citizen archivists," individuals who volunteer their services to participate in helping us carry out our duties as the nation's record keeper.

Setting the stage for his Open Government Initiative on his first day in office in 2009, President Obama said:

Our commitment to openness means more than simply informing the American people about how decisions are made. It means recognizing that the 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 experience of ordinary Americans.

At the National Archives, we carry out this mandate with the help of our "citizen archivists"—our volunteers.

In our Washington-area facilities alone, we have nearly 300 individuals who work as volunteers. They contributed more than 42,000 hours of their personal time to various projects during the past year. Nationwide, we have about 1,600 volunteers.

The National Archives has had a volunteers program for 35 years. We've learned a lot, and now we're sharing some of what we've learned to help other archives—public and private, large and small.

A new publication produced jointly by the Society of American Archivists (SAA) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Resources for Volunteer Programs in Archives, serves this purpose. It describes how volunteers have been deployed in projects at several NARA facilities and at other archives.

We hope that our experiences can help other archives in tapping the knowledge, skills, and abilities of people in their own cities and towns, cultural institutions, and university campuses.

For example, it describes how two volunteers at our Fort Worth archives are helping to process Confederate court records. It details how the project is managed, the training required, the equipment needed, the schedule, and many other aspects.

The book was compiled, written, and edited by NARA staff members, with additional editing by SAA, which was in charge of production. We're proud to have partnered with SAA to produce this fabulous and helpful guide. The book is free and online at the SAA's bookstore at

While volunteers are vital to our programs at NARA, their makeup has changed quite a bit in the last few years. We are now welcoming retired baby boomers who bring high-level skills and broad experience and want to "give back."

We get students who need experience in a professional environment, career changers and job seekers who want to gain archival experience as well as be occupied, and many retired NARA staff.

We're pleased and honored that they come to us to stay engaged, learn about us and history, and share what they know.

However, they cannot replace professional archivists—well-educated in modern archival practices, including (and especially) information technology, so they'll be able to do their jobs effectively and efficiently when all the records coming to us are electronic.

Moreover, to think that volunteers—some of our "citizen archivists"—can take the place of these professionally trained archivists is simply preposterous.

The fiscal picture for the federal government will remain austere for some time, so we won't be able to hire as many professional archivists we would like to.

Meanwhile, volunteers lighten the workload of our professional archivists, freeing them up to ensure that the most important records are identified and preserved properly for future generations.

This is important work, and we will always need help, and we will always welcome it.


Join the Archivist at his own blog and visit the National Archives website.

Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.