Thursday, April 29, 2010

Valuing the Non-professional Archivist

Professional astronomers value amateur astronomers...should archivists follow their example?

I was inspired by a show about the night sky at my local planetarium that briefly discussed how non-professional astronomers have propelled science through wide-ranging amateur exploration. The help of these amateurs has effectively given professionals extra sets of eyes, allowing them to see things that they otherwise may not have had time to locate. We similarly have the potential to expand our archives universe (so to speak) by seeking interested non-professionals who can help archivists identify and care for important archival sources in places we don't have time to reach or cannot access.

Online sites like the Astronomy Zoo encourage amateur exploration and invite the layman to help astronomers with their mission. The site opens and immediately encourages those interested in the science. It reads "Welcome to Galaxy Zoo, where you can help astronomers explore the Universe." It then discusses how individuals can help scientists, what has been achieved to date, thanks the viewer for his help, and ends by declaring "happy classifying!" (Who wouldn't feel wanted and eager to help at that point?)

Similarly, the ecology site Opal invites those interested in wildlife to "find, study, and record nature in your local area." Imperative statements such as "Download a free survey pack and get involved today; Learn more about the water survey; Enter your results online; Find out about other OPAL surveys" encourage those exploring the site online to actively participate, learn more, and become engaged with Opal's cause.

Similarly, a few years ago, I discovered the Great Sunflower Project to help the scientists count bees and gather information that would help ensure the survival of vital bee populations. It seems that the idea of the "Citizen Scientist" is alive and well across the Internet.

Like scientists, archivists need to recognize how partnerships with non-archivists can assist our goals. In fact, we can not be fully successful at our attempts to document our areas of interest without help from non-professionals. We also cannot sustain our work without raising awareness and encouraging an appreciation for our field and the resources for which we care. Active, hands-on, in the field work by non-professionals who have ready access to resources which archivists may not be able to locate on their own is key to the success of archives management. An archivists potential resources can be found in virtually every home, association, and business in the Western world and often remain undiscovered by "experts" and therefore lost to history. Archivists would be greatly empowered by seeking assistance from our local communities and encouraging non-professional (dare I say "Citizen?") archivists who can provide our field with its own extra eyes.

(Thank you to my Twitter friend and overseas colleague Anna McNally, History Project Archivist at the University of Westminster, for supplying telling me about the Astronomy Zoo and Opal sites. Yesterday, I mentioned on Twitter that I was inspired by a recent trip to the Christa McAuliffe Planetarium in New Hampshire and Anna immediately responded that she was attending a presentation about the subject on that very day. Science lecturer Alice Bell was the presenter at her session.)


  1. I am reading your book, The Unofficial Family Archivist. As a person who has inherited a huge amount of family archives from two sets of parents, and four sets of grandparents, I am no slouch at organization.

    But your book will allow me to prepare these materials in a much more sophisticated way. The help you are providing to many "family historians" is huge! I will recommend your book to all my genealogy friends.

    Thank you,


  2. I'm glad that you find it useful Sandra. Thanks for your kind comment. Please let me know if you have any questions as you read. Happy to tr yt oanswer them