Section 3: Flagship Initiatives: Make Access Happen Through Innovation
The National Archives and Records Administration’s (NARA) commitment to open government and innovation is reflected in the 10 flagship initiatives of our fourth Open Government Plan. These initiatives are significant cross-agency efforts that work together to achieve the agency’s strategic goals, and directly impact the strategic goal, “Make Access Happen.” These related efforts involve large portions of the agency working together to improve access to the records of the National Archives. These initiatives leverage technology, provide greater transparency, engage the public, and are done in collaboration with internal and external stakeholders. The cross-agency initiatives are:
- Innovation Hub
- History Hub
- Social Media Strategy
- Citizen Archivist
- User-Generated Finding Aids
- National Archives Catalog
- External Standards
- Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC)
Initiative 1 - Innovation Hub
The Innovation Hub is a new collaboration space at the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, where NARA staff and the public can work on projects that enhance access to records and drive innovation back into the work of the agency. NARA will hire the first Innovation Hub Director to lead these efforts. Over the next two years, the Innovation Hub will accelerate innovation so that we can stay ahead of the curve when it comes to solving our most difficult problems. We will seek to incorporate human-centered design in our processes and explore the intersection of cutting-edge archival, information technology, and communication practices. The Chief Innovation Officer and the Innovation Hub Director will work together to ignite a culture of innovation across NARA, leveraging internal and external expertise to utilize technology, engage with the public, and collaborate with stakeholders.
As part of the Innovation Hub work, NARA hosted two Presidential Innovation Fellows to bring their skills and expertise to the problems of providing improved access to the records of the National Archives. The fellows worked on understanding the perspectives of staff and the challenges facing the agency and then designed and developed a pilot to apply recognition software and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology to generate metadata from images of records. This work furthered concepts around automation and opened up a discussion about new approaches to unlocking information and data within the records. Over the next two years, we will explore developing pilots that leverage technology to significantly improve access to records as we scale to hundreds of millions of records online.
The Innovation Hub opened its doors in July 2015, with a scanning lab and a large meeting space. The scanning lab provides equipment for the public to scan archival records from the National Archives. Since its launch, we have uploaded more than 57,000 citizen-contributed images of pages of records to the National Archives Catalog, making these records available online for the first time. The participants receive copies of their images and are recognized for their contributions in the National Archives Catalog. This “citizen scanning” effort is an extension of our citizen archivist and digitization efforts (see related sections below). Users in the Innovation Hub are also encouraged to assist in tagging and transcription of the scanned records and to engage in “missions” on the Citizen Archivist Dashboard. Over the next two years, NARA will continue to expand outreach and streamline processes in citizen scanning activities and will continue outreach efforts to work with high school and college students, and retirees on scanning and transcription projects.
The Innovation Hub has also been a new resource for us in our collaboration with Wikipedia. NARA is the first institution to host a physical Wikipedia exhibit to promote the understanding of Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects at cultural institutions. We have also been able to host more events, including edit-a-thons, workshops, and conferences. NARA will continue to leverage the Innovation Hub in its collaboration with Wikipedia over the next two years.
The Innovation Hub has hosted a variety of events, including brainstorming sessions to develop a new social media strategy, a scan-a-thon with a professor and students from American University, a hack-a-thon with our colleagues from the Digital Public Library of America, and conversations with visiting leaders from the Library and Archives Canada. Bringing together internal and external stakeholders for collaborative events will continue over the next two years as NARA’s seeks to expand efforts in the Innovation Hub.
As part of the Innovation Hub efforts, we will also explore possible collaboration with a movement to emphasize the relevance of history. Cultural institutions and others that have joined this effort are seeking to elevate history to a greater role in the lives of our community and the nation.
In 2016, NARA launched a new pilot called History Hub. This is an online platform that is transforming how we answer questions from the public. History Hub is a support community for researchers, citizen historians, archival professionals, and open government advocates. History Hub offers tools like discussions boards, blogs, and community pages to bring together a community to provide the public with unprecedented access to history, experts, and government documents. It is a place for the public to share information, work together, find people based on their experience and interests, and get help with their research from experts at NARA locations across the country.
In less than six months, we have seen rising participation from the public on the platform, including 1,114 registered users who posted and responded to 201 questions. The average response time for a reply that is marked "helpful" is no more than three days. Forty-two percent of users are returning visitors, and they read about four pages in three and a half minutes. These early statistics are good indicators that users find the site useful and are likely to use the platform repeatedly. Over the next two years, NARA hopes to expand the pilot, incorporate the platform into NARA’s reference work flow, market it to a wider audience, and collaborate with similar agencies like the Library of Congress and Smithsonian as well as state and local archives.
In 2009, NARA launched our first blog as a pilot project to build a community and increase transparency in the federal government. Soon after, the National Archives established a presence on Flickr, YouTube, and Facebook. In 2010, as a commitment from our first Open Government Plan, we introduced our first social media strategy to empower staff to use social media.
Six years later, the landscape of digital media has evolved and grown. Our digital presence reaches hundreds of millions of people. More than 200 National Archives staff members actively contribute to 130 social media accounts on 14 different platforms, generating over 250 million views in 2015.
Access and transparency are at the core of our work. With the explosion of digital choices, audience needs have changed and their criteria for following cultural organizations have matured. We need to provide exceptional content to stand out—even if it means reaching beyond our comfort zone and trying new approaches.
As we continue to digitize more of our holdings, we have more stories to share. We also want to tell our audiences about the work of our diverse staff and the stories they find. Our staff need an updated social media strategy that guides decision-making and focuses our energies and resources to make a bigger impact and more deeply engage people online.
Beginning in Fiscal Year 2016, NARA social media leaders worked to collaboratively develop a draft of the new strategy involving internal and external stakeholders. In June 2016, we published an update of the agency’s Social Media Strategy for 2017-2020 on GitHub and began to engage staff and the public in feedback on the plan. The code for the strategy is available for reuse by other agencies or cultural institutions and feedback is solicited through the “issues” functions. We will also solicit feedback from other external stakeholders, including the institutions that inspired us through our research in the development of the updated strategy.
The new strategy document looks toward the next three years (FY 2017–2020) and will evolve over time. It is intended to serve our staff and help them create digital content that engages, delights, and illuminates. The strategy also aims to create more opportunities for different levels of staff participation so that we can have greater coordination and impact in the stories that we share.
The four goals of the Social Media Strategy are:
- Goal 1: Tell Great Stories
- Goal 2: Deepen Engagement
- Goal 3: Grow Our Audience
- Goal 4: Cultivate a Social Media Community
These goals are supported by specific initiatives and more than 50 proposed actions that NARA will work towards implementing over the next three years. Over the next two years, we will work to implement the Social Media Strategy and provide updates via GitHub, including examples of specific actions that have been completed. We will also work on further development of supporting resources, including a Digital Plan worksheet for staff members to use while developing social media campaigns, and openly share what we learn from our data via the NARAtions blog.
To learn more about NARA’s Social Media Strategy and provide feedback, please visit Nara-web.github.io/social-media-strategy/. To learn about NARA’s overall social media presence, please visit: Archives.gov/social-media/
After the launch of NARA’s first Open Government Plan in 2010, we sought ways to creatively harness the power of public participation and to help increase transparency into the records of the National Archives. We began to use the term “citizen archivist” to describe those taking part in our crowdsourcing projects, and in 2011 we launched the capability for the public to tag in our online catalog. In 2012 we launched the Citizen Archivist Dashboard and the Transcription Pilot Project. These successful projects taught us that we needed to drive the innovation we had experimented with into the online catalog to scale our efforts.
Since then, we have launched the National Archives Catalog with increased tagging functions for the public, as well as adding transcription, commenting, and enhanced user accounts. Users in the system can now access all of their contributions and statistics for the number of contributions they have made over time. These new features have increased our ability to leverage public interest and added much-needed metadata to enhance search results. With more than 13 million digital pages of records currently available in the National Archives Catalog, the public is able to crowdsource at a much larger scale.
NARA’s Citizen Archivist Dashboard continues to serve as the portal for crowdsourcing activities. Citizen archivists can participate in tagging, transcription, and scanning activities. They can choose “missions” to get started or they can select records that reflect their own interests. Over the next two years, NARA will seek to expand our Citizen Archivist crowdsourcing efforts, including leveraging the National Archives Catalog API in the Citizen Archivist Dashboard. We will hire two community managers to help us develop engaged communities around our records. By Fiscal Year 2025, NARA will have 1 million enhancements, via citizen contributions, to records within the National Archives Catalog. As described above, we will also further expand our efforts with the citizen scanning in the Innovation Hub and in engagement on History Hub.
NARA has been working with the Wikipedia community since 2011, when we welcomed a Wikipedian in Residence and began holding events to build awareness of the records of the National Archives. In 2013, we welcomed a full-time employee devoted to engaging the Wikipedia community and NARA staff to promote greater access, reuse, and enhancing context for National Archives records via Wikipedia. Our collaboration with Wikipedia has expanded over time, and the Innovation Hub is a new resource for conferences, boot camps, and edit-a-thons. The Innovation Hub is also hosting the first physical Wikipedia exhibit to promote the understanding of Wikipedia and Wikimedia projects at cultural institutions. Over the next two years, NARA will continue to expand collaboration with Wikipedia and will seek to upload more digitized National Archives records to Wikimedia Commons as well as continue assisting coordination of the GLAM-Wiki U.S. Consortium.
NARA’s Citizen Archivist Dashboard and related crowdsourcing efforts are included in efforts by the White House to promote the use of open innovation methods, including crowdsourcing and citizen science. NARA’s work is included as an example in the memorandum from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, “Addressing Societal and Scientific Challenges through Citizen Science and Crowdsourcing.” NARA’s efforts are included as a case study in the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Toolkit, and the agency participated in the interagency development of the toolkit. NARA’s Citizen Archivist project is also listed in the catalog of projects on Citizenscience.gov. NARA is a member of the Federal Crowdsourcing and Citizen Science Community and has presented and hosted a monthly meeting in the Innovation Hub. Additionally, NARA staff helped organize the White House citizen science event, “Open Science and Innovation: Of the People, By the People, For the People,” at the White House on September 30, 2015.
Finding aids have been a crucial tool for the public to find and access the archival records of the National Archives. In the past, NARA staff created finding aids that contained valuable information, but were locked in static printed or electronic documents, like PDFs. NARA is working to develop a solution for next-generation finding aids that are dynamically updated as information changes. In this solution, staff members and the public will be able to build finding aids to suit their own needs and interests. This would open up the ability for the public to participate in crowdsourcing efforts to develop finding aids that will serve both traditional and nontraditional audiences.
We will incorporate user-centered design and solicit input from the public and from staff across NARA. The development of next-generation finding aids will provide greater access to the records available to the public, invite public participation in the development of these resources, and facilitate collaboration between institutions. NARA’s work on the development of a World War I mobile application is one example of the work we are doing to reenvision findings aids in a digital environment. Learn more about these efforts in the Digitization section below.
Nearly 3 million visitors come to Archives.gov each month to search and discover information about the National Archives. Archives.gov serves as the primary face of the agency both nationally and internationally. The site serves as an important tool in providing greater transparency and access to the records of the National Archives.
User-Centered Design and Data Analytics
Over the next two years, NARA will seek to incorporate user-centered practices into a redesign of Archives.gov and iteratively improve or build new digital initiatives based on user needs and data analysis. We will reassess existing web pages and sites based on user feedback, and design for the needs of existing and target audiences for NARA’s content. We will use iterative site development techniques to rapidly develop, deploy, and test improvements to the site. Improvements will include incorporating modern web design principles, improving functionality for online exhibits, linking related content across NARA’s digital initiatives (e.g., events, blog posts, exhibits, and content from the National Archives Catalog), and achieving greater consistency in branding.
NARA recently implemented DigitalGov Search, a hosted site search and shared service from the General Services Administration. Using this shared service has increased our ability to better elevate content across our public-facing sites and customize the search experience based on data analytics of trending search terms. We are making iterative improvements for the search results of popular topics, curating a “recommended” section at the top of search results where we feature the most popular records and resources. For example, after seeing a spike in traffic for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” Speech in the spring of 2016, NARA curated recommended resources, including the text of the speech, the official program for the March on Washington, the documentary Making the March, and related results in the National Archives Catalog. Enhancements to search results have improved users’ ability to see related NARA content on social media platforms and filter search results to see only images or only resources from Presidential libraries.
Cloud and Content Management System
To enhance capabilities and flexibilities of the site, NARA is working to complete a migration of Archives.gov to the agency’s enterprise cloud hosting and a migration of the site to a Drupal website content management system. Drupal is a robust, open source platform that empowers subject matter experts to create and manage online content. Over the next two years, NARA will seek to develop open-source Drupal modules and code bases that can be used internally across the agency, as well as shared publicly for others to implement.
More than a third of visitors to NARA’s websites access our information via a mobile device. This number increases every year, making mobile access to our holdings and information a significant priority. More broadly, mobile usage of the Internet now outpaces access from traditional devices, making it more important than ever that NARA’s holdings and content are available anytime, anywhere, and on any device. We will prioritize mobile optimization, via techniques such as responsive design, making web-based content accessible to the broadest possible set of audiences and devices. We will review web content to ensure that it is clear, concise, and easy to read on mobile devices. In the next version of Archives.gov, we will redesign the web pages supporting the “Charters of Freedom,” which include the U.S. Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.
Given the importance of America’s founding documents, we will continue to investigate how to make these records more easily accessible to those online. In addition to improved mobile access, the next version of the Archives.gov will include a home page that features the founding documents more prominently at the top of the page, and we have already incorporated the records more prominently in search results. For additional mobile efforts, see the discussion of the mobile app for World War I still and moving images in the Digitization section below.
The National Archives Catalog contains more than 13 million digital objects, including digitized and born-digital records. More than 94 percent of the records of the National Archives are described in the catalog, totaling 10.9 million descriptions of records. Over 300 NARA staff members, including archivists, specialists, and technicians, are responsible for describing NARA’s records. This includes 34 offices within two program areas—Research Services and Legislative Archives, Presidential Libraries, and Museum Services. Description covers a wide variety of subjects in a wide variety of formats, including textual records, sound recordings, motion pictures, maps, still pictures, electronic records, and artifacts.
Since the last Open Government Plan, NARA worked to launch the National Archives Catalog as a new system, increased the number of records online by millions of records, and improved search capabilities. The catalog has been mobile optimized to enhance the ability of the public to access from any device. We also launched an API for public and staff to make greater use of the underlying data contained within the catalog. The system also has a new home page design that prominently features selected records for the public to discover. Over the next two years, our development efforts will focus on improving the performance and scalability of the system, and utilizing open source platforms so that it can effectively provide access to tens of millions and eventually hundreds of millions of records.
With more than 15,000 active user accounts, the catalog is becoming a powerful platform for our citizen archivist crowdsourcing efforts. With new tagging features, users have contributed more than 168,000 tags to the system. New transcription and commenting functions have been added to the system, enabling the addition of 117,000 transcriptions of records so far and 236 comments. Comments have been used by the public to clarify names within the records and to point out issues with descriptive information. With more than 13 million digital objects and growing, it was essential that we build these features into the catalog so that we could scale our crowdsourcing efforts. Users of the catalog are generating metadata that enhances the search results, helping unlock the information within the records in new ways.
As described in the section above, we are working to better integrate the search results of the National Archives Catalog into Archives.gov, and we will explore how to improve the ability of third-party search engines to find, index, and display objects and metadata from the National Archives Catalog.
We will also work to leverage the catalog’s API to develop feeds of records and metrics to feature from the National Archives Catalog. We are interested in developing feeds that could display newly available digitized records, new user contributions (tags, transcriptions, and comments), and live metrics. We will explore embedding feeds as features on Archives.gov and developing data visualizations using the catalog’s API to better help and highlight records for the public to discover. Other improvements we would like to explore include options for providing greater access to the text layer available in documents that have been scanned with optical character recognition (OCR) technology.
We would like to design a capability within the catalog to allow for the public to vote or nominate records for digitization that are still in an analog format. NARA would use these votes as another source of information as it prioritizes records to be digitized. NARA will also explore how it could provide greater transparency for the public in showing progress on digitization projects as they move through the process to online access in the National Archives Catalog. This could include information on partner projects that are out of embargo, but still need to be processed before they are available online.
NARA will also be exploring an alignment to external standards for description, which would have an impact on the National Archives Catalog. These changes could help improve our ability to share data with collaborative projects, like the Digital Public Library of America. See the External Standards section below.
Initiative 8 - External Standards
In the next two years, NARA will explore the possibility of aligning to external standards, including Resource Description and Access (RDA) and Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS). In 2016 NARA kicked off a robust internal discussion about the alignment to RDA. NARA’s Lifecycle Data Standards Board will consider a formal proposal to adopt RDA standards for authority headings, especially for organizations and person names. RDA will enable the public to better link, remix, and repurpose NARA’s data by using international and national standards; allow for easier participation, discovery, and access in cross-institutional collaborations and cooperatives; and open opportunities to leverage tools built by and for the archival, bibliographic, and museum communities. These changes, if approved, would enhance our ability to make access happen in innovative ways.
NARA faces a unique challenge in its effort to adopt RDA because of its position as the steward of federal organization headings and the effort involved to make those headings compliant with RDA standards. After any decision by the Lifecycle Data Standards Board to adopt RDA, NARA will consider proposing a switch to Describing Archives: A Content Standard (DACS) from the Lifecycle Data Requirements Guide (LCDRG) that was developed for NARA internally for archival description standards. Lessons learned from the RDA proposal process will be analyzed and considered in framing any proposal for DACS in a way that meets internal stakeholders' needs and priorities.
NARA is a partner in the Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) cooperative and serves as the Secretariat, coordinating all governance and administrative tasks during a two-year pilot phase funded by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. SNAC demonstrates the feasibility of separating the descriptions of persons, families, and organizations, including their socio-historical contexts, from the description of historical resources that are primary evidence of their lives and work. One key objective of SNAC is to provide researchers with convenient, integrated access to historical collections held by multiple private and public archives and libraries around the world, while also setting the stage for a cooperative program for maintaining information about the people documented in the collections. SNAC will enable archivists, librarians, and scholars to jointly maintain information about the people documented in archival collections. It will also improve the economy and quality of archival processing and description, and address the challenge of discovering, locating, and using distributed historical records.
NARA staff have worked in an advisory role prior to the start of the pilot, and now work to organize pilot phase projects, among them development of governance policy for the cooperative moving forward; coordination of cooperative partners' meetings; development of user personas to inform the technical development of a user/editing interface; planning and execution of system demonstrations and tests; and drafting editorial policies and best practice guidelines.
Moving into the second year of the pilot phase, NARA plans to dedicate staff for continued coordination of drafting governance and administrative policies, establishing a governing SNAC Steering Committee, developing a formal training program, and a formal plan of cooperative management into the future. NARA’s work on SNAC represents substantial collaboration on an innovative project that will impact fundamentally how we make access happen.
NARA’s Strategic Plan includes the initiative to “Digitize all analog archival records to make them available online.” The volume of our textual holdings alone, 12 billion pieces of paper, make a single approach to digitization impractical: multiple paths are required. Our Digitization Strategy acknowledges this challenge by outlining five approaches that NARA will use to meet our goal: 1) partnerships; 2) crowdsourced digitization; 3) agency transfers of digitized records; 4) internal digitization as part of a business process; 5) NARA’s Digitization Labs.
The implementation of the Digitization Governance Board (DGB) has created a framework for NARA to systematically address digitization issues from practice to policy. Together with the strategy, the DGB has created a structure for digitization at the National Archives. NARA is shifting from policy to an implementation posture as more of the foundational issues are addressed.
Since the publication of its Digitization Strategy in December 2014, NARA has made positive strides towards the operationalization of an agency-wide digitization program. NARA’s internal Digital Imaging Lab created over 7 million images in the last two years and was geared towards a more specialized digitization operation. With a shift towards a production-oriented service system, NARA projects digitization output to substantially increase over the next few years.
The establishment of the Innovation Hub drove public participation in the creation of digital images and their inclusion in the National Archives Catalog with credit given to individual contributors. From August 2015 to May 2016, more than 57,000 pages of textual records were digitized by the public and added to the online catalog. Additionally, pilot efforts were undertaken to engage external entities such as federal agencies and academic institutions as organizational contributors with NARA entering into agreements with several organizations over the past year.
Public Engagement in Prioritization
As the National Archives sets out on its ambitious goal to digitize all of its holdings, planning just how we are going to accomplish this is critical to our success. Both public feedback as well as NARA staff input is valuable in creating this priority list. NARA will start by compiling a list of the records our staff feel are most important to digitize and make available. No prioritization would be complete without the feedback and suggestions of the people who discover and use our records every day. NARA will also ask the public what they would like to see the National Archives digitize over the next few years. We are excited about sharing the priority list with you and increasing the online availability of our holdings over the next few years.
Historically, NARA’s digitization partnerships have drawn interest from the public. NARA feels strongly that the public should have input on our digitization partnerships, especially those that include an embargo period on digitized records being available in the online catalog. In the recently updated digitization principles, NARA committed to posting all such partnership agreements for public comment.
Partnerships to Expand Public Contributions
NARA is focused on expanding the number of organizations and institutions it partners with by developing different methods of partnering. We will establish a short-term digitization project plan that allows individuals or institutions focused on digitizing a smaller volume of material to enter into an agreement with NARA. These plans will set specific project targets and image/metadata formats that the contributor will supply NARA at the end of the project. In return, the contributor will be allowed to set up their scanners in the research room and keep them in place for the duration of the project. For projects lasting less than one week, NARA established an Innovation Hub that allows researchers to have a separate and dedicated digitization space for their project. The researcher can use NARA’s digitization equipment and space so long as the citizen archivist provides NARA a copy of the metadata and images they create for inclusion in the catalog. NARA’s goal is to have 250,000 images contributed by the public and included in the National Archives by the end of the 2018 fiscal year. For traditional digitization partners focused on large, ongoing projects, NARA continues to offer the partnership agreement that allows for multiple projects under one agreement.
Metadata is the key to access. Without the proper context provided by metadata, records can lose their meaning and power. We are expanding the sources of metadata from only NARA-created to asking partners, contributors, and Innovation Hub scanners to complete metadata for the records they image. Researchers routinely create metadata for their own projects to track and use our records. Tapping into this publicly created metadata would reduce the burden on NARA to create the metadata and could speed online access to records. NARA will pilot the review and acceptance of metadata created through crowdsourcing projects and researchers into the catalog. Once the pilot is complete, NARA will assess the costs and benefits to determine if the pilot should be expanded.
World War I Digitization and Mobile App
NARA is embarking on a new engagement strategy around the still and moving image holdings of World War I (WWI) in order to increase the creative reuse and impact of these collections across multiple communities. Through a series of interviews, literature reviews, and case studies, NARA summarized nine key communities of interest and developed user personas to better understand the motivations for as well as challenges to utilizing NARA holdings. To better focus our resources, we are narrowing our audiences to educators, museums and coders. One way that we will engage with these groups is through the development of the WWI centennial app. Educators will be able to use the app with students in their WWI lesson plans while museums can use the app to fill out their own exhibits with different content. Finally, museums will be able to contribute their own content to the app while coders can use the open source code and API to reuse the images, films, and metadata in their own way. Overall, NARA will digitize 75,000 WWI still pictures and 164 titles (337 reels) for over 65 hours’ worth of content.
1950 U.S. Census
Every 10 years, NARA, together with the Census Bureau, releases a U.S. Census that was taken 72 years earlier In connection with the census, very detailed maps of the 1950 Enumeration Districts are being digitized alongside the 6.4 million 1950 census images. (Enumeration Districts are an administrative division of a particular county or township for the purposes of census taking each of which was designated with a number.) Unlike the census itself, the Enumeration District maps can be released immediately to the public. Based on experience with previous censuses, NARA was aware of a dedicated group of volunteers who were creating metadata for every street found on the maps. In order to facilitate this street-level access to records, NARA is digitizing 9,000 maps and making them available to the volunteers through NARA’s online catalog. By working with this group of volunteers, NARA will ensure that the public has even greater access to the 1950 census records when they are released in 2022.
For more information about becoming a partner or contributor, please visit Archives.gov/digitization or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.