I went to Washington DC on inauguration day, January 21, 2013. I arrived late in the evening, but had seen some of President Obama’s speech on tv earlier in the day. Of course, it was Martin Luther King, Jr. day as well, and I took to heart the call to national service, and indeed was honored to have the opportunity to spend the next day together with staff at our National Archives and Records Administration, and proud to be of service to my country in some small way. Update: the public talk I gave is available here, and slides here.
Seriously. Maybe it sounds stupid, but there are a lot of ways to serve your country. To me, figuring out ways to make our national cultural heritage relevant and accessible and inspiring and collaborative for the country and for the world is pretty damn patriotic. And the men and women within our nation’s institutions that are fighting to do this are heroes in my mind. They’re fighting against hundreds of years of bureaucratic layers of red tape, and trying to do monumental things with very limited budget, with more cuts on the way.
There are many at NARA, the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the National Park Service, NEH, NEA, IMLS and many other agencies, that are so passionate about our cultural memory and heritage that they’re willing to stick it out to help bring these institutions into a new era. One in which the data and assets so long in the stewardship and care of government agencies will begin to see new light, inspire new uses, enable new inventions, and create economic opportunities that we can only just begin to imagine. I’ve had the great privilege to work with and spend time with many of these people, and to learn about the behind-the-scenes work going into these efforts.
The ever-expanding holdings of our federal libraries, archives, and museums are in good hands, being preserved and maintained against the ravages of time by experts. These holdings, or some digital representation of them, and the metadata about them, are beginning to be made available en masse for new uses already. But it needs to continue in order to allow for research and business to grow around it; and to become a more participatory endeavor for social good, as Nick and Nick have discussed in the UK; and how Carl Malamud so eloquently and powerfully put it in his remarks at a memorial for Aaron Swartz last week.
Maybe a part of our service to our country is just to help connect the dots of the global groundswell. To fan the flames and continue to build and share use cases that show what people can do with cultural heritage data, how it can be used to help us understand our past, and understand each other. Maybe it’s part of our service to join with the many others that continue the work of the dreamers that dared to stand up to make us all a little bit better. To those who are fighting the good fight in DC: we thank you. Please know that you’re not alone.