The National Archives and Records Administration is taking a novel approach to a challenge faced by many budget-constrained cultural institutions: How to make more of its vast collection of historical treasures accessible to the world.
The answer is taking shape through an innovative arrangement with Wikipedia.
The National Archives is one of a number of organizations taking advantage of a program called “Wikipedian-in-residence” being offered to a variety of cultural institutions around the world.

For Wikipedia, the program offers a way to tap into the troves of highly-desirable archival material for its readers.

For the National Archives, the arrangement provides added means to give greater public access to the government agency’s priceless assortment of high-resolution prints and scans of nationally historical documents. A significant portion of those artifacts have traditionally been limited to special-order copies or confined to reproductions available in a pricey catalog.

The idea behind the program took root last year when Wikimedia Cultural Partnerships fellow Liam Wyatt began looking for ways to tackle the disconnect between “significant” collections in public museums and the “notable” entries on Wikipedia, according to a report published by The Atlantic.
Fast forward: Taking residence this summer at the National Archives as Wikipedia’s digital ambassador is Dominic McDevitt-Park, a graduate student from Simmons College working towards his master’s degree in history and archive management.

What distinguishes McDevitt-Parks, as much as the program, is where he fits into the National Archives organization chart: Rather than apprenticing as an archivist, he works with NARA’s communications and social media team.

“Wikipedia is the ultimate public history project, probably the most ambitious and successful one ever created. I, of course, see a strong correlation between the work of Wikipedia and the work of academics and information professionals, and I am glad that this upcoming project signals that the National Archives does as well,” said McDevitt-Park in National Archives interview.

Among other steps McDevitt-Parks has helped implement is one which invites Wikipedia’s vast network of contributors to turn newly-released documents into full-fledged articles.

The results have been impressive. A portrait of the first African-American marine after desegregation led to an article which, when posted to Wikipedia’s popular “Did You Know?” feature, “got something like 10 million hits in a single day,” McDevitt-Parks told the The Atlantic‘s Jared Keller.

Imagine what a Wikipedian-in-residence could do at the Census Bureau!