Mr. Voss Goes to Washington

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.

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About Jon Voss

Jon Voss is the Historypin Strategic Partnerships Director. Together with global collaborators and the Historypin team, he’s helping to build an open ecosystem of historical data across libraries, archives, and museums worldwide. His innovative work at the intersection of technology and cultural memory is also getting him closer to his childhood dream of perfecting time travel.

2 thoughts on “Mr. Voss Goes to Washington

  1. John,
    I just saw your talk on the Nara site and it really struck a nerve.
    I had no idea this work was happening. I saw that it was implicit in the web but not the full development. Like you, I too spent a lot of time in libraries when the internet began and considering the possibility but I was focused on the historical accountability.

    I am interested in the work on augmented reality and the future of archives. I have blogged on it here:
    I would be interested in your views and finding out more about your work on the future of archives.
    I think archives, especially in the UK, where I work in the public sector, are at an inflection point or a point of punctuated equilibrium. I am focused on the augmented reality opportunities to bring archives to the public. Although I have not looked at the mashup potential, it does offer an way to bring the resources hidden within archives (a heritage offer) and how the public can benefit from it.

    The challenge is not just for connecting, but also about historical accountability and what we mean by public memory, which I covered here:

    I would be interested in your views on these and finding out about any opportunities to connect with your work.

    Thanks for a stimulating presentation and an excellent, inspiring, blog.


  2. Hi Lawrence, thanks for your kind words and enjoyed reading through your thoughts on the matter–great stuff. Drop me a line at jon.voss at and we can look at some ways of linking up.