Digitizing the National Archives

For the past eight months I’ve been spending lots of time at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) facilities in D.C. and College Park, Maryland conducting research for History Associates. While NARA has recently launched an ambitious program with Lockheed Martin to create a system to store electronic records, the entire operation is still essentially “a big pile of paper.” (To quote one of the Lockheed contractors I overheard in the cafeteria.) So much paper that the Archives boasts on their website the pages would circle the earth 57 times.

While NARA and Google announced in February a project to digitize some of their film holdings, and the Archives has digitized a smattering of documents for their website, currently there’s comprehensive effort to systematically digitize the entire thing that I’m aware of.

However, NARA appears to be making some exploratory steps to do exactly that: they’ve issued this request for proposals for demonstration projects of technology and methods to digitize a historically significant selection of records and “test the feasibility and value of disseminating large quantities of historical sources based on standard archival methods of description and arrangement.” They plan to issue as many as three grants for up to $150,000 each. Proposals are due October 2.

At its core any digitization effort will consist of a massive scanning project, regardless of the technical system developed to organize and share the data. Currently at NARA there’s lots of digitization taking place, but it’s not retained by NARA or available to the public. Of course I’m talking about the digital photocopiers that scan the document before spitting out exactly one copy. What if NARA provided copiers that would produce copies at a discount (Say $.10 instead of the normal $.15), provided the user input the Record Group, Entry and Box for each page? The images could then flow online to a system like Flickr as they were produced, where the entire world would be invited to add descriptive tags, post comments about documents, and link to them from other websites. (To be fair it was Emily who sugested documents should be tagged a couple weeks back.) While this system would need to be complimented by a systematic effort to ensure every page is eventually scanned, it would very quickly make some of the most historically relevant records available, and provide for a mechanism to help organize the vast amount of data contained at the National Archives. The inevitable duplication wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, as users could “vote” for which scan is the best (or correct) image.

I look forward to hearing about the winners of the RFP and seeing what innovative approaches they come up with.

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Wouldn’t the NARA want these files to be stored on their servers locally? And wouldn’t Flickr just randomly place them on the web with no real hierarchal method? Or are you suggesting this as a side to officially digitizing/storing them and just as a means to publicize their efforts?

  2. Oh, I don’t think that it should be Flickr, just a system that would have some of its features: commenting, tagging, and support static URLs, etc.

  3. I pitched your idea to my friend who works at the Ford Presidential Library. They’re uber-traditional there, but we’ll see if anything comes of it.

  4. Pingback: Urban Oasis » Flickr and the Library of Congress

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