Online portal engages citizens to archive Singapore’s past

Citizen Archivist Portal Homepage. — National Archives of Singapore/TODAY pic
Citizen Archivist Portal Homepage. — National Archives of Singapore/TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, March 10 — A new online portal that allows the public to pool their knowledge and increase efforts to index more of Singapore’s history was announced by the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) at their Committee of Supply (COS) debate today.

The National Archives of Singapore (NAS) will roll out a Citizen Archivist Portal this weekend to involve the public in transcribing more old records, said Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim. This initiative is the first locally, the minister added.

Visitors to the online site can either help caption old photos within the NAS or transcribe historical handwritten manuscripts such as the Straits Settlement Records. A total of 3,000 pages of Straits Settlement Records and 3,000 photos will be released at the launch.

According to the NAS, there are more than one million pages waiting to be transcribed and 140,000 photos that require identification — all of which will gradually be uploaded onto the portal. These documents are scheduled to be released in phases every two months.

Completed documents will be transferred to the NAS’ online catalogues, Archives Online, where those searching for information on Singapore’s history can turn to.

NAS Director Eric Chin said that the portal helps speed up the photos’ identification process by opening these resources to the public.

The main aim is to put some form of identification on these documents to make searching for the information online easier. “We want to show these to Singapore and see who can help us to piece the jigsaw together... It is useless for me to have this picture when there is no description because when people come into archives online and they are searching, they do a search with the key word. We need some description of the key words and make the archives searchable,” said Chin.

His sentiments were shared by historian Ho Chi Tim. A lecture at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Department of History, Ho said that the portal is beneficial for those seeking information on Singapore’s history.

In the past, historians faced constraints when searching for information, said Ho. For example, the only records available were the physical copies available at archives. Historians looking for unarchived information had to sift through tons of records and convert them into microfilm before they could be taken out of the archives.

He felt that going digital would improve the public’s accessibility to the information because factors such as the opening hours of the archives no longer pose a constraint to information seekers.

Ho however, pointed out concerns over whether information collated would be substantial enough for research purposes. For example, he said that the captioning of photos might lack detailed information that historians are looking for if the caption fails to provide detailed information of the setting the photo was taken in. He also noted that archiving might not be “everyone’s cup of tea”.

But not all non-historians find the prospect of archiving dull and hard. For 57-year-old librarian, Lim Fei Mee, going through old photos allows her to reminisce about the good old days. Transcribing, on the other hand, required some getting used to. When she first tried her hands at it, Lim found the old, cursive handwritings and understanding the transcript’s content a challenge because of the era it was based in.

“(But) If I were to do a little more research before hand (to understand the content better), I might find it easier to transcribe,” said Lim.— TODAY

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