Citizen archivist: Making historical records more accessible to the public

SINGAPORE - The Internet has made it possible to tap the wisdom and knowledge of crowds in many ways.

The newly launched Citizen Archivist Project by the National Archives of Singapore is one good example. The online portal allows members of the public to pool their knowledge and collective memories to enrich the country's historical records.

The public is invited to describe photos or transcribe handwritten documents posted on the website.

Here's more about the project:

1. How does it work?

The Archives is "asking for everybody's help to make these records more discoverable", the Citizen Archivist website says.

You can either describe photographs or transcribe documents.

The National Archives says on its website, "We have many photographs which don't have descriptions or have very minimal descriptions. These images come from a variety of sources, but were mostly transferred in bulk from public agencies.

"Can you help us with identifying who, when, where or what? See if there's anything that you recognise! But even if you can't identify the year or the time period, adding a description of what you can see will help people who are searching for photos like these."

Here are some photographs which need to be captioned.

As for the documents, the National Archives says its collection of Straits Settlements records has a lot of handwritten material which cannot be read well by computers.

"We need your help to transcribe these pages that have been digitised from microfilm to help make these more easily searchable for everyone!"

Dating from 1826, the Straits Settlements records include letters from Sir Stamford Raffles and other officials, government gazettes or even records of taxes and duties.

When there is sufficient information, the National Archives would collate the contributions and add them to the Archives Online - its official online catalogue.

Contributions are monitored and inappropriate ones will be removed.

Here are examples of the documents whose contents need to be deciphered.

2. Who are likely to contribute?

The short answer is, anyone! No specialised knowledge is required.

The National Archives hopes to tap into the knowledge of history enthusiasts as well as the memories of seniors who may be more familiar with the scenes featured in the old photographs. Younger generations are also welcome to give descriptions of the photographs, or transcribe pages from Straits Settlements Records.

"With the Citizen Archivist Portal, we want to make Singapore's history accessible to all, and we welcome anyone with an interest in Singapore's history and heritage to sign up as a Citizen Archivist," said the National Archives in an email.

3. Who will vet the captions and transcripts?

Like Wikipedia, the site relies on many contributors, and the onus is primarily on the users to post responsibly.

However, inappropriate content like advertisements, personal attacks, hate speech, vulgarities and harassment will be removed.

Archivists from the National Archives will also check and review the contributions before they are transferred over to the official Archives Online portal.

4. Why not leave it to the professionals?

The Citizen Archivist Project aims to tap the people's knowledge to provide meaningful descriptions of the archival material.

"Everyone has distinctive recollections and memories that would help enhance our understanding of the historical documents and of our past," the National Archives said.

5. Will I be credited?

The Citizen Archivist will be credited if his or her contribution is used on the Archives Online portal.

With proper descriptions, the documents will then be more search-friendly online.

It will also be easier for researchers and the public to find what they need.