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NIST Crowdsources Historical Artifact Identification

The standards agency has posted photos of scientific instruments developed over its 110-year history to its digital archive and is asking for help identifying and placing them in historical context.

Metal Instrument In A Wood Case
(click image for larger view)
Metal Instrument In A Wood Case
The organization that sets federal technology standards is using its digital archive to crowdsource the identification of scientific instruments it's developed over its 110-year history.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) Digital Archives has a new cache of images of scientific instruments that have been used to take measurements--such as quantities of sugar and electrical voltage--over the years. It's also published historical documentation about the history and creation of most of the instruments, putting their use into historical context.

However, some of the instruments are unidentified and lack documentation, and NIST is asking people to help figure out what they are, the archive's librarian said.

"We have some artifacts in our collection we want to identify, so we thought we could exhibit them online and ask for help," says NIST Digital Services Librarian Regina Avila.

For instance, one of the objects is simply called "metal instrument in a wood case" and looks like a brass-colored crank. Others are identified but could use more descriptive information, which people are free to suggest for the archive, the agency said.

NIST currently has photos of 137 artifacts on the site and plans to add hundreds more in the coming months, it said.

Many of the artifacts--which are also on view in the NIST Museum on the agency's campus in Gaithersburg, Md.--are well documented, providing people with historical information about what they were used for.

Crowdsourcing has become a popular tool for federal agencies to use when they want to reach a large number of people to acquire information or gather opinions. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently crowdsourced a challenge to create designs for a next-generation combat vehicle.

Digital archives also are becoming more prevalent among federal agencies as part of the Obama administration's transparency strategy to make more information available to the public.

NASA, for example, last year published its history of social-networking activity through a partnership with an online archive service, Archive-It. The agency also posted an archive of historical photographs on the Flickr photo-sharing site.

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