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Celebrate Sunshine Week By Transcribing Once Top-Secret Documents

The National Archives wants you…to make documents more accessible to future generations

This once-secret memo lays out methods for secret writing once used by intelligence agencies. (National Archives)
smithsonian.com

Since 2005, news organizations, freedom of speech advocates and government institutions have spent a week each year mid-March celebrating access to public information. It’s called Sunshine Week, and it’s a chance to draw attention to the types of information funded—and owned—by all. Now, reports Shaunacy Ferro of mental_floss, you can get in on the act by helping transcribe hundreds of recently declassified documents for the National Archives.

The U.S. National Archives and Records Administration is holding a week-long transcription challenge in honor of Sunshine Week. The challenge offers citizen transcribers a chance not just to dig through once-top-secret documents, but to become more aware of the kinds of documents available via government declassification and the Special Access and Freedom of Information Act program at the National Archives.

FOIA has been in effect since 1967 and requires federal agencies to make government documents accessible to the public. The law does have privacy and secrecy provisions, but it's used widely by individuals and press outlets seeking more information about the government. The Departments of Homeland Security, Justice and Defense process the most FOIA requests, but everything from autopsy reports to zoning information can be "FOIAed" if the information does not meet any of nine exemptions.

There are other ways to access public records, too. Every year, the government declassifies once-secret documents that are more than 25 years old if they no longer affect national security or fit the FOIA exemptions. As a result, the world now has access to everything from CIA reports on flying saucers to World War II posters.

This week, the National Archives is asking its team of citizen archivists to focus on recently declassified documents in a bid to reach 1,000 transcribed pages. So far, already over 400 have been transcribed—but that’s no reason to shy away. Cold War history and materials about the John F. Kennedy assassination are just some of the treasures archivists need you to transcribe, and your work will ensure that these public documents are available to future historians and individuals curious about their government’s past.

Want to get started? Create your citizen archivist account here. And even if you don't fancy your keyboard, you can still get involved. Sunshine Week celebrations will occur across the country this week, with awards ceremonies, FOIA trainings and other events planned all over the country.

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